Monday, 28 December 2009

Christmas 2009 (Part 3)

After the long drive of the day before it would have been very tempting to sleep in however, being in Budapest on the last day of our official 'tour' with Aron, Meg and Wayne were both up relatively early and headed downstairs for the buffet breakfast. It was exciting to see bacon and eggs (there is not a lot of bacon in Qatar and the bacon that is there is turkey bacon), sausages and other hot foods, along with the cereals, cold meats, fruits and various types of breads that we typically encounter in Europe. Both boys eventually joined us but it was clear that they were still very tired, so they were given the option of staying home for the final Christmas Market of the tour. This they elected to do, so it was only Meg and Wayne who came down to meet Aron when he arrived at the Hotel Unio.

We were very pleased to hear that his children were feeling a little better and determined not to monopolise too much of his time, so that he could return home to spend the remainder of Christmas Eve with his family. The Unio Hotel is not far from Teréz Körút (Theresia Boulevard) one of the main thoroughfares that runs through Pest, so we decided to walk from there up to the Nyugati (Western) Station. The station was opened on October 28, 1877, having been built by the Eiffel Company, the same engineering company run by Gustave Eiffel which was responsible for the design and building of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It is the main station for transport to and from Budapest Ferihegy International Airport and one of the major transport hubs in the city.

Above the railway station lays a major shopping centre, the WestEnd City Center which was Central and Eastern Europe's largest shopping centre when it was opened in November, 1999. Even though it may not have been as big as some other shopping malls we had explored in other parts of the world it was still an interesting experience. We were able to do some more Christmas shopping before heading downstairs to the underground railway station which is part of the third oldest underground in the world. While the London Underground was built in 1863 and Istanbul's Metro in 1875, Budapest's Yellow Line was complete in 1896, yet despite that is quick and efficient. Soon we were disembarking at Vörösmarty Station which is adjacent to Vörösmarty Square.

The square is held to be one of the city's most beautiful and is adjacent to the Gerbeaud Confectionary company building which acts as a giant advent calendar during the month of December. Each day one of the windows had been opened till, as we were there on Christmas Eve, there was only one left. As with the other markets that we had been to it was largely comprised of small wooden huts which held a mixture of food and drink stalls and those selling Christmas decorations or traditional Hungarian folk products. All the products on sale have been handmade in the traditional way and this is guaranteed by the Association of Hungarian Folk Artists. Christmas cookies and glassware are particularly famous but the market is also known for providing entertainment in the form of puppet shows, folk dancing, and traditional music.

By this stage of our trip there was very little snow left, with just some small grey scrapings piled off to one side but there was still a very festive feel to the market itself. We particularly loved the Christmas decorations made out of grass, and it was when photographing a large boar made in this way that Wayne was unable to avoid taking a photograph of a small girl. When he raised the camera, she stood beside the boar, when he put it down she looked carefully at him then started to walk away. As soon as he raised the camera again she raced back and stood next to the boar once more. Consequently, there is an unidentified small girl featured in our photos.

From Vörösmarty Square we wandered down a mall toward the Danube to look across the river from Pest to Buda. The banks of the river, along with many other parts of the city are a World Heritage Site and even in the cold on a day which was fairly overcast; it was quite clear how beautiful this part of the city is. Many people know that the city was originally two cities, Buda and Pest, which were unified on November 17, 1873 to form modern Budapest. However, there has been a settlement on the site since, at least, the 1st century BC when it was occupied by the Celts who called it Ak-Ink (which meant 'abundant water'). Aquincum was the name given to the city by the Romans who were but the first of the conquering armies who have overtaken the city at various stages of its history. Aron had entertained us the previous day with the stories of the many glorious defeats which Hungary (and Budapest in particular) had suffered over the centuries. As Australians (who particularly remember the battle of Gallipoli in World War I) we felt we could empathize with him.

From the waterfront you can see some of the amazing sites on the hills which comprise Buda on the eastern side of the river. These include Heroes Square with the Millenary Monument, Matthias Church, Buda Castle, and the statue of Szent Gellért. Saint Gerard (or Saint Gellert as it is in Hungarian) was Hungary's first bishop and lived from 980 till 1046. Allegedly he was placed on a 2-wheel cart, hauled to the top of, what is now, Gellert Hill, and then allowed to roll to the bottom. Because he was still alive at the bottom he was beaten to death. He is now one of the patron Saints of Hungary and every September 24th is celebrated as a feast day for him. Like so many other parts of Europe, statues abound in Budapest and even include statues of people who are completely covered.

From our vantage point between them you could also see two of the most important bridges across the Danube. Looking to the south we could see the Erzsébet (or Elisabeth) bridge which is the second newest bridge in Budapest. It was built between 1897 and 1903 across what is the narrowest point of the Danube through Budapest. The reason it heads directly into the base of Gellert Hill is that the land was owned by a city councilor who bribed other officials so that he could sell the land at a greatly inflated amount for bridge construction purposes. Unfortunately, this necessitated a sharp turn immediately across the bridge on the Buda side which, while it was no doubt painful in a horse drawn carriage, has proven to be disastrous for motor cars with numerous people killed or seriously injured. The bridge is, at least, not named after the councilor but for Queen Elisabeth, a popular Queen and Empress of Austria-Hungary who was assassinated in 1898, while the bridge was being constructed.

To the north is the Széchenyi Chain Bridge which was the first permanent bridge across the Danube and when it was opened in 1849 its center span of 202 m was one of the largest in the world. The bridges primary structure and decorations are cast iron and, along with the stone lions at either end, make it a particularly beautiful example of what the industrial age could achieve. Despite legends to the contrary, the lions do have tongues (although they are not visible from below, which is the usual point of view, as the lions are lying on a stone block some three meters high). However, people have been known to criticize their apparent tonguelessness. When confronted with such criticism the sculptor replied "Your wife should have a tongue just as my lions have, and woe will be unto you!" In a maneuver that has become more common Hungarian stunt pilot, Péter Besenyei, flew upside down under the bridge back in 2001, which would have been very impressive to see.

We retraced our steps back along the mall, stopping to admire some beautiful shop fronts. Part way up, while looking at some of the souvenirs available we spotted a gentleman carrying a large, pine tree over one shoulder. Clearly not everyone is of the impression that Christmas trees need to be erected a month or so prior to Christmas Day. After successfully navigating his way along the side street it was a little more difficult to manoeuvre his way through a narrow doorway and up at least one flight of stairs. We appreciated his tenacity, which reminded us that we still needed to arrange for a Christmas tree for the following morning at our hotel. Aron offered to loan us one, but we assured him that we would be quite able to make do. Indeed, after a return train ride and then the short walk back to the hotel we bid farewell to our guide from the previous few days. He had been very helpful, organising all sorts of things and responding to any requests that we had made of him. If you are interested in travelling in Eastern Europe we strongly recommend contacting him at

Because of the time difference it was already Christmas in Australia so the first of our phone calls to family took place before we went to bed. Following the pattern we had established the year before, Wayne and Meg borrowed a tree from the hotel to set up in our room and spread out the presents ready for the following morning. Also following the pattern, the boys claimed that they were going to sleep in the following morning because they were so tired yet, when the time came both Brock and Quinn were knocking on the door while Wayne and Meg were still in bed, wishing them a Merry Christmas and wanting to come in and investigate. Breakfast was downstairs in the restaurant (we were 4 of only 8 guests staying in the hotel) then more phone calls and present opening were the order of the rest of the morning.

That afternoon we decided to go out to the local shopping centre, Arena Plaza, to see a movie. The boys wanted to see the movie Avatar and, once we had determined that it would be shown in English they went off to see it while Wayne and Meg had a cup of coffee and strolled around the shopping centre. The more we travel, the more we come to realise that things that we took for granted in Australia (almost everything being closed on Christmas Day for example) are not necessarily the case in other parts of the world. In Hungary much of the Christmas celebration takes place much earlier in the month while the other part tends to happen on Christmas Eve. Consequently, there were lots and lots of people out at the shopping centre. By the time the movie was over it was almost dark and time for our Christmas dinner.

When we had first booked the tour with Aron we had asked if he could arrange something for us in Budapest for Christmas dinner on Christmas day. Trying to find food that resembled a traditional Christmas dinner in the UK or Australia was a very difficult task. Pertu Station was down near the Danube on the Pest side and near the Erzsébet Bridge. It is designed to look like a train station on the inside, perhaps one that is on a line that has been discontinued, even down to the rails placed into the floor of the upstairs section of the restaurant. Downstairs was elegant and the staff were very friendly. Dinner began with a beef consommé, followed by a main course chosen from a few different options (including chicken and Hungarian goulash) then desert consisted of a crepe with rich chocolate sauce. All of this had been pre-paid as part of our tour, with only the wine and drinks an exception.

After dinner we walked across and through the streets and malls to give the boys a taste of the Budapest Christmas Market at night. Unlike many of the other markets that we had visited, Budapest continued right up to Christmas itself and the square was very busy with many of the visitors buying the traditional foods and other ornaments and items for sale. The lights were very beautiful, especially at the Gerbeaud Confectionary building on Vörösmarty Square. Walking down to the Danube was cold but still wonderful with the buildings and monuments on both sides of the river being lit up spectacularly. By the time we reached the Széchenyi Chain Bridge we were all shivering but it was only a short taxi ride back to the Unio Hotel for our final night in Budapest.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas 2009 (Part 2)

When the alarm went off in the morning, Meg went to wake the boys up and we all packed our bags and tidied ready to head downstairs as soon as breakfast was finished. We had placed a call the evening before for breakfast to arrive at 7am, so when it reached 7:20 and the breakfast had not arrived Wayne was sent downstairs to try and ascertain what had happened. We had needed to be up early and get breakfast out of the way so that we could make the drive from Krakow to Vienna at a reasonable hour. What we hadn’t counted on was that none of us had changed our watches or phones to take into account the two hours difference between Qatar and Poland. You can imagine the surprise on the face of the hotel clerk when Wayne wanted to know why breakfast hadn’t arrived, only 1 ½ hours before it was due. Perhaps the fact that he had awakened her should have given him the clue before he looked at the clock on the hotel wall.

After he went back to the room Wayne decided to try and get another hour or so sleep, while Meg used her laptop to check emails and access Facebook. Once 7am came at least we were all ready to go, so after another breakfast delivered to the room we were able to go straight down and load the bags into the minibus. The early part of the trip was through the streets of Krakow and traffic was a little slow, partly because the streets were icy and partially because of the volume of people on the road. Once out of the city it was due south through the southern part of Malopolska toward the Slovakian border and mostly we moved quite quickly.

One thing that we discovered about travelling through Europe was that you have to pre-pay a road tax in order to travel on the motorways. When we stopped at a small village just north of the border Aron was able to go inside and pay the tax while we took a bit of a stroll and took some photographs. After the cold of the previous few weeks in Europe it was amazing to discover that, even here in the mountains, it was around 5°C. Much of the scenery was spectacularly beautiful with lovely old architecture (we were told that one of the wooden three story styles that we saw was specific to the area and enabled multiple generations of the one family to live together). It was also a market morning in some of the Polish towns and villages, so people had filled the streets which slowed down our journey somewhat.

The southernmost part of Poland is quite mountainous and is the site of some of their best ski resorts. It is also, as Krakow was, intimately connected with the former Pope John Paul II. We drove past the edge of Wadowice where he was born and where his former family home has been turned into a museum. Even from the edge of town it was possible to see the top of the basilica in the market square where he was baptized. Some of the churches along our route were stylized wooden buildings which dated back to as early as the 15th Century and seemed to alternate between Roman Catholic and Orthodox. Even the turnoff to Zakopane was labelled as part of the tour for the Pope because he had come back, we assume in the early days of his papacy, in order to go skiing there. Our favourite sign of all was that for Szczyrzyc which even Aron had some difficulty in pronouncing.

The Tatra Mountains, which form most of the border with Poland and lots of the northern part of Slovakia, had seemed to be largely thawing as we were driving through Poland. When we did glimpse some of the more that 250 skiing routes which are in the area it seemed that there was only snow on the section used for skiers, otherwise things were quite green. As we crossed the border, however, things began to change and the sky became overcast. The temperature gauge which was part of the dashboard on Aron’s vehicle, showed the temperature fall from 4°C, by half a degree at a time, down towards freezing. As we drove, there was more and more snow visible by the side of the road and soon, much to Meg’s excitement, the rain that had been falling turned into sleet and then into snow.

Northern Slovakia is one of the more beautiful parts of the world and the snow, in particular, simply added to that. As well as the high peaks and ski slopes there were some deep valleys with rivers and waterfalls flowing. One of the most amazing sights was the Orava Castle which is next to the river Orava near the village of Oravský Podzámok. It stands on the site of old wooden forts and was constructed after the Tartar invasion in 1241. It consists of several buildings copying the shape of the castle rock which had undergone many reconstructions before it acquired its present form in 1611. Today the Castle has lower, central and upper sections which contain palaces, fortifications and towers. There are also underground tunnels and even a dungeon. While we didn’t get to visit properly, the main road in to Banská Bystrica still provides an amazing view of the castle.

When we lived in England we weren’t far from the headquarters of one of England’s biggest retailers, Tesco. Not really having thought about it, we were stunned as we continued heading south to come across a Tesco’s store. We were due to get some more fuel so we were able to get off the road to reacquaint ourselves with this store (even if most of the writing, advertising etc. was in Slovakian). It turns out that Tesco’s is the second largest retailer in Slovakia with well over 50 stores and plans to open another 15 during 2010. Slipping (literally) past the Christmas tree sale that took up a large section of the car park we were able to spend some good time looking for things which we had been unable to find in Qatar and some more supplies to keep us going through the day.

In contrast to the northern part of Slovakia the southern part is very flat with lots of farming land spread out on either side of the car as we headed down through Nitra toward Bratislava, the capital. It was not surprising that this region had been an area of conflict many times throughout history dating all the way back to the Roman Empire. Invasions of Huns, Franks, Magyars, Mongols, Ottomans, and Hapsburgs devastated sections of the countryside even before the 20th Century. During the last 100 years the identity of the country has changed multiple times and seen control exercised by the Nazis during World War II and the Communists in the Cold War period. It was only in 1993 that Slovakia achieved independence and even more recently that they joined the European Union.

Being winter, by the time we were getting close to Bratislava and the Austrian border the sun was starting to set. As a consequence of this we saw enormous numbers of birds rising from the river valleys near to the Danube and heading toward Bratislava. Aron explained that during winter it was too cold for the birds to nest in the open fields where they spent much of the day and that they would retreat into the cities where there were more opportunities for them to keep warm. It was not long after this that the motorway took us past Bratislava and we got a glimpse of another castle sitting on a hill above the town. The site on which the Bratislava Castle sits has been inhabited since the transition period between the Stone and Bronze ages. At different stages in history is has been the acropolis of a Celtic town, part of the Roman Limes Romanus, a huge Slavic fortified settlement, and a political, military and religious centre for Great Moravia. The first stone building was not constructed until the area became part of the Kingdom of Hungary in the 10th century. Since that time it has undergone a variety of transformations till becoming the royal seat of Queen Maria Theresa. An accidental fire destroyed the castle in 1811 and it then lay in ruins until it was rebuilt. It still looks impressive today although it was currently closed to the public.

Approaching the border with Austria, apart from the misfortune to pass across another border without being able to acquire a stamp in our passports, what really struck us was the enormous number of wind turbines we could see. Perhaps because the Danube Valley has been prone to flood in the past, wind farms have become both a source of income and of energy for landowners in this part of the world. Having two national capitals so close to one another might also be an explanation, for Vienna and Bratislava are two of the closest situated national capitals. This means that, while Bratislava has its own airport, it is also easy to reach by means of the much larger Vienna International Airport, which we passed on the highway into the city.

By the time we reached Vienna it was already dark, which meant that we got to see some of the beautiful Christmas light displays as we made our way up to Schönbrunn Palace. We had always suspected that Vienna would be a beautiful city, having been a centre of the arts for centuries, but seeing it lit up accentuated this impression. The final part of the journey took us up Prinz Eugen Straße past a number of consulates which were interspersed with a variety of restaurants, one of which made much of the fact that Sharon Stone had once eaten there. We were determined to try and take as much of this in as possible because Aron had heard during the day that his children were both sick with chickenpox. In order to give him the opportunity to be the best support to his wife, rather than spend the night in Vienna where we had originally been booked, we had agreed to travel on to Budapest. This had the added benefit for us of completing the majority of travelling on the one day so that we could relax over Christmas.

Schönbrunn Palace sits on a hill overlooking the city and has among its grounds the world’s oldest zoo which was founded in 1752. The Schönbrunner Schlosspark, which surrounds both palace and zoo, was also founded in the 18th century and is like a botanic gardens, however the actual Vienna Botanic Gardens is at Schloß Belvedere. These are just a few of the many beautiful parks and gardens which are scattered throughout the city. There are a number of Christmas markets held in Vienna, but to have the opportunity to visit the one situated in the grounds of Schönbrunn was a special experience and we didn’t even mind having to park down below the gardens and walk the kilometre or so.

As we had experienced in Krakow, much of what was on offer at the markets was Christmas related with tree decorations and other baubles featuring heavily. Each market also strongly featured the traditions of its own country in the food and drinks that were available, as well as in some of the speciality items and souvenirs for sale. Wayne decided to sample some Chocolate Punch (a concoction of hot fruit wine with chocolate which both he and Meg absolutely loved) and was delighted to discover that you got to keep the mug in which it was served. Brock, Quinn and Meg all had giant Viennese Wurst Hot Dogs while Wayne ate a form of schnitzel with some very lovely hot potato, bacon and cheese mixture. We also purchased some beautiful wooden Christmas ornaments and various souvenirs of Vienna and Austria.

After we had finished wandering the markets it was time to catch a tram down the hill into the centre of Vienna itself. It was only a short ride but once again we found public transport in Europe to be fast and efficient. When we alighted we were standing outside the Vienna Staatsoper, where people were standing offering us tickets for standing room in that nights Opera Performance. Wherever we went in Vienna there were people willing to offer us tickets at reduced prices to cultural events which was a nice change from other cities where the street hawkers offer very different sorts of products or services.

We strolled up Kärntner Straße marvelling at the sights, sounds and beautiful lights. While Hollywood has a film walk of fame, the stars in the streets of Vienna had famous classical musicians, including; Richard Strauss, Giuseppe Verdi, Gustav Mahler and Karl Bohm, to name a few. However, the biggest star was clearly Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart whose image decorated everything from t-shirts and store fronts to chocolates and miniature statues. One of the souvenir shops that we wandered into saw us abused by the owner who claimed we were preventing him from closing for the evening. This would have been more believable had Meg and Quinn not seen him watching pornography quietly in a corner when they first entered. His temper was somewhat negated by Wayne making a small purchase before he left but this was the only sour point of our entire time in Vienna.

At the bottom of the Kärntner Straße was St. Stephens Cathedral where a service was being conducted replete with music from the massive organ and a choir with a soprano. Although the words were in German the music itself was familiar from church services in other countries. While the inside was replete with the fretwork, statues and vaulted columns that we have come to expect in Roman Catholic cathedrals throughout Europe, the external frontage looked surprising flat. When we got up close we realised that this was because restoration work is being done there and so a flat wooden screen (painted to look like the facade of the cathedral) was covering much of what we could see. Full credit to the people who created it because, at night, it wasn’t easy to tell until you were up close that this was what we were seeing.

While Aron went to get some dinner, we opted to take a horse drawn carriage tour around the streets of Vienna. This was lots of fun and a fabulous way to see the city and the coldness of the night was countered by the blankets that we were given to cover us. Our driver (in his balaclava and bowler hat) was somewhat gruff and didn’t speak much English, but every time there was a site of particular interest he would turn and shout it out to us. The horses also wore blankets and wonderful woollen hats which covered their ears but from their nostrils came the steam of their snorts as they came to terms with the cold night air.

Our tour included the Christmas markets taking place in the centre of town as well as an outdoor Christmas tree sale where you could walk up and drag home your own pine tree (most of them looked much too big to carry easily). Some of the Christmas lighting was very impressive, with giant bows adorning the front corner of many of the buildings and Swarovski Crystal chandeliers hanging down the middle of the street. The architecture and elaborate statuary which we saw as we travelled the streets was amazing and it was a fascinating contrast to see how many people were out walking in Vienna in contrast to Krakow two nights earlier, although we were travelling through at a similar time of the evening. Passersby waved at us as did the drivers of other carriages that we saw travelling the reverse route of the tour. All too soon the tour was over, but it was a very special experience that we will remember for a long time.

When we had alighted from the carriage we found Aron and made the short walk back up the mall once more to the Statsoper. This time we had to get across to the other side of the road in order to catch the tram and we were able to achieve this by using the underground walkway. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this was going down the stairs and finding a public toilet. This was not just any old public toilet however, the sign outside informed us that it was an Opera Toilet mit Musik. While you visit the bathroom you can listen to the sounds of opera being piped through the cubicles. We might, perhaps, have been more tempted to experience this if there wasn’t a charge to do so. Instead we went back up to the trams and soon found ourselves back in Aron’s van (although not until we had made one quick final stop at the Schönbrunn Market so that Aron could purchase a mug of punch to take back to his wife, which he transferred into a flask before we set off).It took a little while to get out of Vienna itself but once we were it was a relatively short time till we were passing the airport and then only another half an hour or so till we had reached the Hungarian border. This was the fourth country we had been in during that day which, even at the rate that we often travel, was quite impressive. Once inside the border we made another stop at a service station to purchase the next Motorway pass and then we were back following the general line of the Danube down toward Budapest. This was Aron’s home town and it was obvious that it was the place that he knew the best. However, despite the local knowledge, roadwork that was taking place on the main road into town and a bridge closure meant that we got to experience some very bumpy parts of the streets of the Hungarian capital. Doing some loops around a couple of one way streets brought us to the Hotel Unio where we would be staying for the next few nights, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Night.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Christmas 2009 (Part 1)

When we first moved to Qatar one of the pieces of official business that we had to undertake was to hand in our passports so that the visas could be affixed inside. Consequently, for the first few months of our time here we were not able to leave the country. This meant that we got to explore some of Qatar and to know more about our new home town. However, what it did not do was satisfy the itch to visit even more places. We had intended to take a driving holiday at the beginning of December but for a variety of reasons this did not work out. Consequently, as Christmas approached we knew that we wanted to fly somewhere and so we asked Brock and Quinn if they had anywhere that they particularly wanted to go. In the end, the only requirement was that it be somewhere where there was snow.

In order to arrive at a time that allowed us to see all that we wanted we needed to catch a 3pm flight from the airport at Doha. Fortunately Qatar Academy was having a half-day for the final day before the Winter Break so Wayne, Brock and Quinn were able to finish at 11:40 and head home. The traffic on the drive back in to the city was terrible but Meg had all the bags down and in the taxi so all that was required was the boys getting changed and we were off to the airport. Once again we had not told the boys where we were going and at the airport it was only Munich, where would change planes, which would give our destination away.

Doha Airport is only relatively small but busy. However, as we discovered when we first arrived, they have a service called 'Maha' where you are met by a representative who will take you through everything making sure that you have someone to translate in case there are any issues with different languages. They also wait in line for you when you are coming back in to the country and make sure everything to do with passports, visas and luggage is looked after while you rest in a lounge. We hadn't tried using it on the way out, so we decided to give it a go this time. In the end everything seemed fairly easy and we didn't feel like we actually saved anything in relation to time or queues so we will probably not use it again but it was worth it as an experiment.

Although our flights had been booked through Lufthansa the first flight itself was on a Qatar Airways plane, which gave us the opportunity to fly using our new 'home' airline. We had heard differing reports from people but we had an excellent experience. All the staff were courteous and helpful, the plane seats were roomy, and (much to our surprise) they served alcohol. As we were seated prior to take off we realized that two of the P.E. staff (who are married) were there with their two girls (both of whom Meg had taught during her relief appearances in the Primary School). They were off to Austria skiing for the holidays and would be picking up a car in Munich to drive the short distance to the ski fields. Although the boys complained that they couldn't go anywhere without running into a teacher from school it made the flight seem even friendlier.

Perhaps the thing that astonished us the most about the flight was the route that we took to Munich. We travelled north over Bahrain, and Kuwait, which was only to be expected. Then it was off over Iraq, and (much to our amazement) flying directly over Baghdad and Mosul. From there we trekked across Northern Turkey and the Black Sea before crossing the north eastern corner of Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria, before reaching Germany. In all it took around 5 ? hours and we touched down at "Franz Josef Strauss" International Airport to the sight of snow covering the sides of the runways and blanketing cars in the car park.

Disembarking at Gate G18 we had to walk off the plane, up the ramp, up a number of flights of stairs to the top level of Terminal 2. We then had to walk along through the Arrivals lounge to the area where connecting flights were arranged. This took us back in the direction we had come but down to the next level of the Terminal, along to Customs where we produced our passports, and down another flight of stairs. After a walk to the gate from which our allocated flight was to be leaving, we found ourselves at Gate G17, which exited down the same ramp as we had ascended when we had left our Qatar Airways flight. Approximately 20 minutes walking to find ourselves almost exactly where we had begun.

Otherwise Munich is a fabulous airport at which to have a layover. There were a variety of free newspapers (both German and in other languages) and free coffee, tea or hot chocolate available. If you are a smoker then various cigarette companies have sponsored special smokers' rooms with lovely glass windows, so the smokers can bask in their own carcinogens and everyone else can observe them as they walk past. There is a wealth of shops of various types in case you have the shopping itch and wireless internet is free throughout the Terminal. All in all it didn't seem very long before we were called for boarding and a small group of us boarded the bus to be taken out to the much smaller plane we would be taking to our destination.

Brock has made it pretty clear that he is rather hesitant about boarding any airplane that seats fewer than 100 people. Consequently, when he laid eyes on the plane he wasn't overly enthused. 'Still, at least it is a jet and doesn't have propellers'. This flight was conducted by one of Lufthansa's subsidiary airlines and was perfectly satisfactory. There was only really enough time for us to take off, be served some drinks and then come back down after the 45 minutes to Krakow. None of us had ever been to Poland before and our first experience touching down at the John Paul II Airport was an extremely positive one. As we came through Customs and out into the Arrivals lounge we were met by a taxi driver who held up a sign to indicate he would be taking us to the Hotel Aspel. As we went out to the car park we discovered a fairy land. There was snow everywhere (courtesy of the cold snap that had covered Europe for most of the preceding 2 weeks) and it hung on the branches of the pine trees like something out of a Christmas Card. The lights decorating the terminal added to the effect.

The drive through the snow covered landscape from the airport into the centre of Krakow was magical. Old fashioned European houses with snow covered roofs, beautiful old churches likewise, many places covered with fairy lighting and then finally a town which was lit up like a Christmas tree as well. Although we had been travelling for a considerable time it was still only 9pm as we headed for the hotel, yet there were very few people on the streets, perhaps because it was so cold. While we thought that the -12°C was quite nippy, the driver told us that only two nights earlier it had been a significantly frostier -24°C.

The tour guide that we were to be meeting the following morning had organized everything for our arrival, however there were a couple of mix ups over paying for the taxi (the hotel was meant to pay and invoice our guide, instead we ended up paying and having it deducted from our costs) and the rooms (Meg and Wayne's room was originally a twin, however they soon moved into a double) but these were soon sorted. With everything organized, including breakfast which would be brought to our rooms the following morning, and a winter wonderland awaiting us outside, it was only left to fall into bed and get some well earned sleep before our holiday properly began.

Perhaps because we were working on body clocks which were still a few hours ahead, on Doha time, we woke early and were able to enjoy the breakfast which had been delivered on a large trolley. From cereal and toast to bread rolls, a variety of sliced meats, juice, coffee, milk and fruit; there was an extensive range of food to choose from. Getting dressed in as much warm clothing as we had been able to muster (given that we are now living in a desert country) we headed down to the foyer to meet Aron our tour guide. Aron was not only taking us on our Eastern European Christmas Market tour but was also the boss of the agency through which we had organized it. While he is Hungarian he had spent considerable time in Poland, Slovakia and Austria conducting these tours, so he knew the surroundings very well. Much to our amazement we discovered that his wife was Australian and that he had spent quite a bit of time there. Most impressive was that he had driven up from Budapest only that morning, having left his wife and two young children asleep at home at 2am.

Outside the hotel was a tram stop which we would make use of to catch the tram into the centre of Krakow itself. Aron had a supply of Polish Zloty, although there was nowhere to buy a ticket. Not to worry, this could be sorted out once we were actually in the city. The trams were quick, clean and efficient and we were soon leaving the combined train/tram station and walking through the connected shopping mall out into one of Krakow's large squares. Here we were beset by tour guides wanting to show us all of the sights of Krakow, as well as the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mines and Auschwitz-Birkenau. One, in particular, was quite determined to take us somewhere for a sum of money but we had Aron to answer his entreaties and we were soon walking through the streets on our way into the centre of Old Town Krakow where the Christmas Market was being held.

Krakow used to be the capital city of Poland (from 1038 to 1596) and has a long and substantial history. It was named after Krak, who was a legendary prince of the Vistulanians (for whom the river, the Vistula, which passes through Krakow, was named). Like so many of the older cities of Europe it used to be much smaller and walled to protect it from invaders. There are still a number of substantial remnants of the walls and we were able to pass through and see these as we walked. The streets were cobbled and several of the signs on the buildings made it clear that they had stood in this position for hundreds of years, which wasn't entirely surprising when you consider that the city of Krakow dates back to the 7th century. There is also evidence of a Stone Age settlement on Wawel Hill. Because of the snow and ice it was somewhat difficult walking, however there was very little in the way of motorized traffic on the streets which made things easier.

Sadly, the beautiful Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) at the centre of the Old Town Square was undergoing renovations which made it difficult to see fully. However, our first Christmas Market was still an exciting experience. The square was filled with small wooden buildings of various shapes, including some in the shape of barrels which were dispensing hot, mulled wine. There were all sorts of things for sale including; traditional Polish craft; Christmas decorations of a multitude of varieties and colors; Polish foodstuffs, especially a large selection of sausages; prints and postcards representing Poland and Krakow in particular; an extraordinary number of types of sweets, and many souvenirs linked to Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope, who had been Archbishop of Krakow before being called to the Papacy. We had a lovely time browsing, taking photographs, and sampling some of the local delicacies.

Having toured the markets, Aron led us out of the Old Square and down through the park which runs alongside the Vistula. Having been away from England for so long it was wonderful to see so much snow on the ground once more. As we wandered along, admiring the surroundings and listening to the commentary that Aron provided, Brock and Quinn decided to indulge in a little snow ball fighting. Fortunately, neither of them is particularly accurate so when they turned their attention to the adults it was only Aron who received a blow (which you can be quite certain was not aimed at him). In the end, in order to get one another, they resorted to running up and pushing snow into their persons. By the time all of this had taken place we found ourselves near the base of Wawel Hill.

As well as being the oldest known settlement in Krakow, it is a legend that Wawel Hill was the home of a cave inhabited by the dragon Smok Wawelski. As it towers above the surrounding countryside it is the site of both Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral and has been both the residence and burial site of Polish kings. This made for quite a steep walk up the side of the hill, somewhat treacherous because of the snow and ice, but the views when one reached the top were tremendous. Interestingly, much of the building, including the Cathedral, looks rather piecemeal because each new conqueror of the area brought their own additions. This included Nazi Germany who, after the invasion of Poland, in September 1939, established the General Government (led by Hans Frank) in Wawel Castle. This diverse approach still manages to look spectacular.

Unsurprisingly, one of the first things we were confronted with when we reached the top of the hill was a statue dedicated to Karol Wojtyla, who in 1978 was both the first Slavic Pope and the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years to have been elected to head the Roman Catholic Church. The church is a huge presence in Krakow, with over 120 Roman Catholic places of worship alone, about half of those being built during the 20th Century. Perhaps because it was the seat of government for the Nazi regime, very few of these buildings were damaged during World War II. Even the Communist rule which followed did not seem too inclined to do damage to the historical architecture and consequently, Wawel Castle and Cathedral is a very impressive spot. Even the drain pipes are beautifully decorated as gargoyles.

It is beautiful to look from the top of Wawel Hill down to the river. This was especially true on the day we were there as there was so much ice. From the walls of the castle we could also see into the region of Krakow known as Kazimierz. This was an influential centre of Jewish culture leading up to World War II when the Jewish population of Krakow was moved into a walled zone known as the Krakow Ghetto, from which they were sent to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Plaszow. The movie director, Roman Polanski is a survivor of that ghetto, while the Oskar Schindler of Schindler's Ark and Schindler's List fame recruited the workers for his factory from there. From a population of around 70 000 prior to the war, the post holocaust Jewish population of the city was around 5 900 and by 1978 the number was down to 600. While most of the many synagogues were destroyed, the Old Synagogue (the oldest in Poland, built in the 15th century) managed to survive although all its artwork and relics were looted.

On our way back down the hill we saw evidence of one of the other areas for which Krakow is renowned; education. There we saw the Arcybiskupie Seminarium Duchowne which prepares Polish men for the Catholic Priesthood. It is one of more than 10 tertiary institutions in Krakow of which the Jagiellonian University is both the oldest and best known. It was originally founded in 1364, making it one of the oldest universities in Europe and some of the buildings associated with it date back to that time. Aron informed us that Krakow is a place where many people come to do university exchanges, to continue pursuing their degree while doing some study in a foreign land. We can completely understand why you might want to do that here. It is a very beautiful part of the world.

We walked back into the Old Town Square (although we would have loved to take one of the horse drawn carriages that were traversing the streets, something for later on in this trip), stopping to admire the St. Mary's Basilica. It is amazing to think that this building had stood on this site for over 700 years since it was constructed, surviving all sorts of conflicts and other catastrophes. It is the model for many other churches built by Polish people throughout the world and is the original of what is known as the 'Polish Cathedral Style'. It was made even more familiar to English speaking people by a book, originally published in 1929, and called The Trumpeter of Krakow. This book tells the story of a famous 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city. As a consequence, every hour, a trumpet signal - called the heynal (hejnal) - is played from the top of the taller of St. Mary's two towers. It breaks off in mid-stream in memorial to the original. Midday's hejnal is broadcast by the Polish national Radio 1 Station and this is able to be heard throughout the country and around the world.

With a couple of stops for refreshment and to look in some of the local shops we headed back to the tram station to catch a tram back to the hotel. Aron had indicated that we would be able to still fit a visit to Auschwitz into our schedule before the end of the day, so we quickly changed into some warmer clothing and headed down to his van. We would become very familiar with this van over the next couple of days as it would be transporting us from Krakow to Vienna and then on to Budapest. This was our first encounter with it, as we made the 50 kilometre journey (it took a little over an hour because of traffic, ice and a couple of missed turns) to Oswiecim.

We had seen the entrance to Auschwitz in movies, such as Schindler's List and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but to be visiting the actual place as sunset approached and the whole area was covered with snow is something we will never forget. It is all still there, much as it was 64 years ago; the long wire fences extending toward the horizon on either side, row after row of old wooden buildings that had once provided a resting place for the 1.5 million people who had died here, the guard towers rising ominously toward the sky, even the railway lines on which so many of those people had entered the camp on their final journey. It was a sobering experience, particularly once you went inside one of the latrine huts and saw some of the conditions under which they were kept. The dormitories, even now, look cramped and we were glad that it was so late that we would not have time to visit the gas chambers and furnaces in which the bodies were first killed and then burned. Only a week or so earlier someone had stolen the sign that hung over the entrance to the facility but, thankfully, it had been returned. Our hope is that retaining this site will mean that future generations will remember what took place and such things will never happen again.

Our trip back to Krakow, with a detour to buy some fuel for the mini-van and some food and drink for us, was one filled with a mixture of excitement and seriousness. We were back in Europe and visiting some fabulous cities as we prepared for Christmas, but some of the other places we were going to see were going to be more downbeat in the manner of where we had just been. Our route lay along the River Vistula which we had seen earlier in the day covered in ice. While closer to Krakow this ice had been broken into pieces, further down river it was completely iced over. By now most of the traffic was either off the road or moving in the other direction so our trip back was faster than the trip down had been. When he reached the Hotel Aspel we headed off in different directions; Aron to stay with a friend of his who lived nearby, the boys to their hotel room, and Meg and Wayne to the supermarket next door to get some supplies for the drive on the following day.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Our Arabian Nights (Part 2)

Having successfully moved countries once again, and having had three weeks to sort of settle in, it is about time we filled in our friends with how things are going here in Qatar. To make this a little easier, rather than detail everything and every day, we will break things up into categories, beginning with;


Make no mistake about it; even at the end of summer, Doha is hot! Things may have cooled down from the high 40's that we experienced when we first arrived, but even today the temperature was 40°C. In the next month we are told the temperature during the day will drop and become much more bearable but for the last three weeks (with only a couple of exceptions) the only time it has been sensible to venture out onto the streets is after dark. Consequently, we have become accustomed to visiting shopping centres in the evening and seeing children playing in the playgrounds until well past midnight. When we drove along the Corniche one night (the parkland that rings the bay here in Doha) it was amazing to see all of the playground equipment being used so late at night by so many people. At 1am a local McDonalds was full of children enjoying their Happy Meals. I am not sure how they will all cope come Sunday when school goes back.

There is a rumour that Quinn saw a cloud one day two weeks ago, although the rest of us have our doubts. If you are looking for somewhere where it doesn't rain a lot, Doha could certainly be the place for you. We were amazed to see the pictures of the dust storms on the east coast of Australia the other day, particularly because it reminded us of the regular late afternoons here. The major difference was the colour of the dust, which tends toward the white in Doha, as opposed to the orange we saw in Australia. It is very dry which means that the areas of grass, shrubs and trees that have been cultivated in gardens around the city stand out even more. We haven't experienced very much humidity until yesterday, when Meg and Wayne went down to the Souqs (markets) with some friends during the morning.

Even though there is very little change in the weather we still arise each morning (although the time for that rising has occasionally drifted more toward the afternoon) and check out the window to see what the day will bring. It shows that the habits of a lifetime are hard to break. Air conditioning is obviously very important in this climate and we are fortunate that everywhere we want to go has so far been air conditioned. It is an amazing thing to drive past a large tent in the middle of a patch of desert and see the line of air conditioning units outside.


One of the things we have really appreciated about Qatar Academy is how generous they have been with providing transport during the time we have been here so far. After picking us up from the airport and bringing us to our new home, there have also been multiple bus trips in the evening to the various shopping options which are available around the city. For the two weeks of orientation, buses were provided to and from the school each day, and if Meg and the boys finished early transportation was arranged to get them home. We have in the last week or so made contact with a driver of our own, who will come and pick us up and ferry us anywhere for a very reasonable price. The other family who lives in our building were able to rent a car because the husband still had a valid Qatari licence from a previous period here, so they have also been very helpful in getting us around.

Getting a Qatari drivers licence has been one of the tasks we have set ourselves since we arrived so that we will not have to continue to rely on others. This has meant making visits to an optometrist to do an eye test, getting our fingerprints recorded, and going to the Motor Registry and having our paperwork processed. Consequently, Wayne is the proud possessor of a Temporary (3 month) Qatari licence while we wait for our Residency Visas to come through at which time the full licence will be available. This meant we also went out yesterday and explored getting a vehicle of our own. It seems that in a month or so we will own a Mitsubishi Pajero 7 seat 4 wheel drive, which will enable us to go trekking around the rest of the country and into other places such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.

Getting the licence isn't the only scary thing about driving in Doha however. One of the ways that you navigate around the city is by knowing the major roundabouts which everyone uses as reference points*. Until recently Doha was known for a dearth of street signs. However, when you watch the Qatari's negotiate intersections (and roundabouts in particular) you begin to understand why there are places with hundreds and hundreds of damaged cars not far from the city. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this would be for you to watch this youtube video of what is reputed to be the worst intersection in Qatar ( While initially Meg was thinking about driving, and will probably still get her licence, some of these driving habits along with driving on the right hand side of the road mean that she will probably not use it much.


The most significant impact that living in an Islamic culture has had on our lives so far has been because our arrival coincided with the month of Ramadan. As part of this holy month Muslim peoples do not eat between the hours of sunrise and sunset and our doing so would be likely to cause great offence to our hosts. This meant that shops were only open for an hour or so early in the day, then reopened after dark. It also meant that we could not carry drinks with us if we were out during the day and were restricted to consuming food and drink only in places where we would not be likely to be seen.

At the end of Ramadan was the festival known as Eid al Fitr which is one of the few occasions during the year when everyone gets a holiday. Even the builders who are working on the multi story building which is being constructed next to us had a day or two off and (apart from Friday mornings) they seem to work most of the rest of the time. We got used to wishing people (and receiving from others) Happy Eid, although this was usually in the form of 'Eid Mubarak', and this would even come from complete strangers as we walked through shopping centres.

After initially being struck by the sheer number of people wearing traditional Muslim garb we have since become accustomed to the sight. While the white kandura or thobe (long sleeved robes that go down to the ankle, but not below it), gutrah (head scarf) and iqal (doubled black cord used to keep the gutrah in place) are fairly standard for men, there is much more variation in the clothing that the women wear. While the abayas (long sleeved outer garment from neck to feet) are almost always black there is lots of beading and intricate trims that form part of the clothing for most of the Muslim women in Qatar. The hijab (head covering) also has many variations, with some women wearing it so that the whole face is clear, others showing only their eyes, and occasionally women who wear it as a veil so that nothing of their face can be seen. It has been explained to us that most Muslim women (and some men) are very offended at having their photograph taken, so we have been very careful in how we take photographs while we are here.

When Brock and Quinn heard that Meg would have to wear not only the hijab but also an abaya when we go into Saudi Arabia they were horrified. Meg, however, is quite looking forward not only to the experience of wearing these garments, but also to shopping for and purchasing them. Rather than seeing it as an insult, she feels that it will be a way of experiencing another culture that she could not have, except by dressing that way. Wayne is somewhat disappointed that many Muslims would take offence if he were to dress in traditional male garb, he would be interested to experience that aspect of the culture as well.


Like any country, trying to live and work in Qatar requires fulfilling lots of bureaucratic requirements. Our passports were handed over to the school only a couple of days after we arrived and we will not receive them back until our Residency Visas are processed. However, many of the other things that we need to do require acceptable proof of identification, which means a passport. Thus there have been lots of photocopies of various pages of our passports being used to open bank accounts, apply for a temporary licence, get medical forms, obtain mobile phone sim cards and make other significant purchases. Waiting in lines has also been a past time to which we have become accustomed, particularly when there were about 42 new staff joining the school this year (because of the growth that has been taking place) and we often travelled together to get many bureaucratic things done.

One of the most amazing experiences any of us have had was the day we all went to have the medical tests which were required for our visas. Everyone was bussed down to the medical centre which conducts these tests and the men were separated from the women. Each group then had to pass through various queues; paying fees (a gentleman from Qatar Foundation handed each of us 100 Riyal from a huge pile he had for this purpose), taking the paperwork to another desk where we were given a test tube, having blood taken, joining another queue with our paperwork newly stamped, and having our chests x-rayed for tuberculosis. If we had been here to do physical labouring jobs we would also have had to endure a complete physical on top of this. In the end the women were finished much faster than the men, possibly because there were fewer of them, but they saw much more panic among the people around them, as it is against Islamic law for women to be uncovered in public (which they needed to do for their chest x ray).

While getting our chest xrays my experience was somewhat different to the wonderful men in my life, my first adrenaline rush came when they separated me from them and escorted myself and 20 other ladies from QA into a room full of women, we were taken to a VIP line so that we would not have to wait behind the other 100 plus ladies. Yay I thought until a very small worker came and dragged me out of the VIP line and told me that I have to wait like others, I tried to explain that I was with the other QA ladies and she sushed me and pushed me onto a chair. Another lady then demanded to know where my Abaya was and indicated that my hair should be covered. At this point I am seriously thinking … where is the airport I want my mama when Cheryl one of the other QA ladies realised what was happening she called me over to the rest of the group. The small worker came running to take me back until we made her understand that I was where I should have been. We had our bloods taken and Cheryl being a blonde was treated with up most care and attention whereas I had the needle stabbed into me and bruised as did all of the dark haired QA staff members that day.

Particularly unusual about this day was that only two days later we had to go off for another blood test. While we thought that it might have been possible to take a small amount of what had been siphoned out to find out what blood type we were, instead we went elsewhere and had our fingers pricked for this purpose. Many of our colleagues had already provided evidence of their blood type from their home countries (as had we) but nonetheless had to go for the blood test. For the Americans it also turned out that rather than having their driver's licence recognised (as it was for the Australian's, Canadian's, New Zealander's, Spanish and British who make up most of the remainder of the new staff) because of a dispute between the two governments they would have to sit driving tests. This was despite the fact that they at least were driving on the side of the road to which they were accustomed, unlike many of the rest of us.

I have found people here in Qatar to be very respectful and decent to us as a family but find it a little frustrating that they don't seem to be able to understand my accent and when I speak they ask Wayne or the boys what I have said ….. we also have had to learn that I am unable to get maintenance to fix anything as the workers are not comfortable being alone with a western woman in an apartment.


As those of you who have seen the promotional video would have already noticed (if you haven't it is available at this is a very professional operation. They have been wonderful at making us feel welcome, appreciated and part of the organisation. Even though our house is not in the compounds with the other staff at the moment, we are on the priority list to be there. Social outings to see more of Qatar have been part of the organisational schedule (our first trip to the souq and also a visit to a traditional coffee house). As well there was a relaxation day at the Intercontinental Hotel for staff and families where we got to lounge beside the pool or the beach and have a lovely buffet lunch.


Shopping is a hobby close to my heart and before coming to Doha I would have told you that I had nothing else to learn about shopping.. but I was so very very wrong, I did not know that squid comes in a can with ink, that potatoes are a sometimes food due to the high cost and that just because I want something doesn't mean I can get it.

I love the smells and that atmosphere of the malls here and could spend hours people watching just to see what they buy how they interact with each other and how adorable the children are here.

I miss being able to buy vanilla essence without having to go to four grocery stores, to buy and English magazine without having to sell a body part to afford it . I love the new foods we are seeing and tasting getting used to a new way of life and watching Brock and Quinn find their niche here.

I could complain or be sad for all of the things I will miss or not be able to have or I can buy a sewing machine and make it, adapt it or even invent it .. which is exactly what I have done. Qatar has been an eye opener for me in many ways but this move will be a special one because of the Qatari people and the welcome we have received from them and the Qatar Foundation