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.

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