Monday, December 16, 2013

Krakow and Auschwitz


So I finally made it to Poland last month, to the medieval city of Krakow and nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Not only was it a particularly memorable weekend thanks to visiting the latter, Krakow itself was memorable for being a great ancient city with a lot more going for it than most non-capitals in this part of the continent.


For a start it has Europe's biggest medieval market square at its heart, with the landmark St Mary's Basilica in one corner and rows of decent-quality restaurants and bars on all sides.

The best waterholes though were in the streets snaking off from the square, a lot of them subterranean spaces hewn out from the under-
lying bedrock so it was almost like drinking in decorated caves – have not seen many such bars anywhere else.

And I've not witnessed a drinking culture so 'spirited' since visiting Dublin, with the big exception that Polish booze is about 3x cheaper so it could get perilous if you're that way inclined (no surprise it's popular with stag parties here).


Away from the square is Wawel Castle and Cathedral on a fortress-like hill overlooking the city. And shortly away from the city is a UNESCO World Heritage attraction, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which was once one of the world's largest and most profitable industrial sites when salt was the medieval equivalent of today's oil.

There are 200km of passages to walk through (some of), created by 900 years of mining, and at least 2,000 caverns hewn out, as well as some impressive artistic wall carvings.



The most unforgettable part of the weekend though was always
going to be the journey through one of history's darker chapters at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex (have written a separate, more substantial blog piece at my other website on my experience there). 

It was an aptly grey day weather-wise when I visited but here's a gallery of some of the better photos that came out of the camp buildings and piles of bi-products from its victims.


A sombre note to end the year on, but I'd robustly recommend anyone reading to visit both these places in 2014.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Frenetic in Grenoble


Ok, it's not 'proper mileage' by Tokyo/Calcutta standards but I thought I'd post about a French media trip I went on last month as my personal travels won't be extending beyond Europe until next year at least – time and funds allocated to a pair of stag weekends and weddings as two more mates call time.

When I was invited on a trip to Grenoble and the French Alps by Rhône-Alpes Tourism I accepted only because the programme was full of mountain-based activities of the more enlivening variety than the usual strolling around vineyards and villages itinerary I've seen too many times before.

On the first day was zipwiring from great heights between a mountain and the Bastille hill fortress:


The next day was mountain-biking – proper mountain-biking – at breakneck speeds down some of the steeper slopes of a nearby Alpine mountain, sensibly padded out in full body protection:


On the third and final day, it was up another mountain in the Les Deux Alpes range where we at first watched some paragliders descend through the clouds (sadly paragliding wasn't on the itinerary):


But then we ascended even higher to the glacier at the summit – Europe's largest skiable glacier – where you can snowboard even in the height of summer. Here's me carving out a turn:


Not really. I didn't take my SLR on the piste because it's too clunky, and anyway on only the second run I caught an edge, smacked my head on an icy part of the slope and had to limp back down with a nosebleed, double vision and an instant killer headache. 

It wasn't bad concussion or anything but that was the end of my weekend! Luckily we were flying home that evening anyway, although the flight certainly didn't help the throbbing. Lesson learned: wear a helmet, even if experienced.

The other overarching lesson though was that Grenoble is a great city, classically French and with a wealth of frenetic active options to get involved with in the surrounding mountains – perfect for a stag do, which I'd seriously consider now if I ever get hitched.

My full article will be appearing in two London publications at the end of the month. For a fuller gallery of SLR shots taken check out my Flickr page


Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Painful Passage to India - Part 2


So there we both were at the packed departure lounge for Calcutta at Dubai Airport, spaced out and drained from the first leg and six-hour linger, having then searched for a wheelchair for less-mobile mum and now waiting for the first boarding announcement.

Usually the airline lets those in wheelchairs and carrying babies board first but a major hindrance had materialised: a large number of passengers had decided to not so much as queue before the gate as form an impenetrable crowd of bodies and baggage blocking the way for whoever was called first.

Now I could understand the thinking behind this approach if we were about to board a Ryanair short-hop with unallocated seating, when many flyers customarily want first dibs on seats to the extent that they'll start queuing long before boarding, and if you want to guarantee a seat next to your partner then you have join the line.

However, on a long-haul flight with pre-allocated seats, when they call you on incrementally in specific row sections, there is actually zero point in queuing early unless you somehow knew they were calling your seats first. Just standing blank-faced like cows waiting for milking, and then of course refusing to budge when the announcement arrives for rows A to C to please begin boarding.

easy boarding - not realistic

Naturally, those holding the correct tickets can’t get past the unmoving mass, some of whom at the front have the cheek to try walking through anyway, then look affronted when told it’s not their turn by the gate attendant.

And then, to make matters nicely worse, instead of sensibly rectifying the situation with a polite yet firm announcement for everyone to just back away from the gate until your section's been called, the airline then announces for rows D to G to begin boarding, after the previous rows have very visibly been unable to get through.

Hell breaks loose as a mini stampede piles through, Bengali curses and exclamations ringing out as people get shunted. All mum and I can do is hang back shaking our heads at the sheer needless idiocy of it all - I regret not recording the scene with my camera to create a realistic anti-advert for the airline and air travel in general.

flight welcome - not realistic

Once we’d finally scrambled onto the jumbo the bad luck continued. The only thing that had kept me alert and sane on the previous flight was the entertainment screen with games and movies on demand. On this one the screen was too small and hazy and you could only watch what they had chosen at the times they choose. Stuck with an obscure film I could barely see or hear on a much noisier flight, I wasn’t a happy camper.

The only thing that could alleviate the situation was a semi-decent in-flight meal as the extended wakefulness and previous missions had triggered some major rumbles. A dragged-out feed could also kill the best part of an hour too, but it would have to be something soft-ish as my swollen jaw couldn’t handle anything harder than a banana. At long last it arrived.

Lamb medallions - the airline version, ie. having sat around for so long their consistency was closer to pencil erasers than meat. Unable to chew them without wincing and clasping my face, that was the moment I hit rock bottom, 30,000 feet above the Arabian Sea. All my options had dried up. Nothing left could lighten my spirits while trapped in that seat – I couldn’t even drink alcohol as I was on so many antibiotics and feeling rough as fuck. I did try though, and funnily enough it didn’t help.

After managing to scrape together a mini-meal from the limp side vegetables, condiment sachets and mum's donations I had to ride out the rest of the flight playing a primitive version of Battleships on a tiny fuzzy screen that kept freezing, broken up only by an old Bollywood flick with no subtitles.

hahaha

I spent the last two hours sat motionless with my eyes closed, praying for the release of sleep that wouldn’t arrive until we’d landed and made it out of the airport and back to the hotel. Needless to say that part didn’t go particularly smoothly either but that’s a different story to recount another time, along with the more positive sides to India that weren’t mired in chaos.

In that first jerky hour-long cab ride through central Calcutta however, what should've been an entertaining eye-opening welcome to the city’s bustle seemed like the shrieking road to hell, a ceaseless barrage of noise, fumes and gridlock traffic, emaciated figures looming up at the window at every standstill, mutely begging us captive passengers for currency we didn’t yet possess.

It put things into perspective though – my immediate problems of oral pain, hunger and sleep deprivation would have receded by the next day, the jaw a little longer, although that would be superseded by the affliction cursing most Western visitors here, of which I won’t need to go into much detail.

My hardy mum also needed to dialyse every other day at local hospitals while experiencing the same, struggling with the nature of the beast of a modern-day urban India completely at odds with the more serene memories of her childhood here.



Kris Griffiths BBC link  Kris Griffiths website  Kris Griffiths recent disaster story

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Painful Passage to India: Part 1


I’ve had some great luck on flights over the years. For my very first long-haul, to LA in the mid-90s, my fam and I were jammily upgraded to business class after my dad’s winning banter with the check-in clerk.

Then in early 2011 I hit it off with a ginger girl sat beside me on a budget flight to Marrakech, telling her she reminded me of Catherine Tate with her Easyjet-orange hair, a bold negging gambit that paid off as we're still together (and she looks nothing like Catherine Tate).

It's not all been good though. A domestic flight to Inverness in 2004 was interrupted halfway by the pilot announcing that due to an “engine fault” we had to turn back to London immediately. Not only was that return descent as trepidatious as can be, we had to wait hours to get back into the air and no one was compensated.

Finally, a night-flight to Tokyo in 2009 turned into a bizarre battle of endurance with the paranoid Japanese man next to me, which ended worse for him than it did for me.

All of them were blown out of the sky though by my Emirates flight to Calcutta last month, during which I reached a nadir of despair that was to become a harbinger of my stay in India.


The prologue to it all is that I’d actually been looking forward to the trip for months, to be finally visiting my Anglo-Indian mum's hometown (she'd not returned since childhood) and to meet at the triennial global reunion in Calcutta hundreds of fellow Anglo-Indians whose dying community I’d just featured for the BBC.

The first major spanner in the works was that a long-dormant wisdom tooth had suddenly chosen to unleash a siren-wailing level of pain in the months leading up to the trip. My dentist told me it had to come out and booked me in for the extraction – five days before the flight.

The op wasn't that bad, the only truly grim moment a preliminary injection penetrating my gum almost to the jawbone, but it was nothing compared to the ensuing days of swelling, inability to eat and ultimately a rank infection necessitating further injections back into the wound.

dentist website photo - a bit unrealistic

By the time I’d arrived at Gatwick with my mum I’d taken over 50 painkillers in five days as well as a triple-course of antibiotics and now a long stretch of anti-malaria pills which, as many will affirm, can make you feel nauseous for hours.

My final problem was that as I can’t sleep on planes the first seven-hour night-leg was spent awake and aware of a new development – altitude pressure causing extraction-wound throbbing. Then after landing in Dubai there were six hours to kill before the connecting flight, so into the bright morning we traipsed, looking for a taxi we could haggle with a handful of old dollars and a five-pound note to drive us round the sights and keep us alert 'til check-in.

classic brave face

Funnily enough we found an Indian driver seduced by the fiver of all things who agreed to take us on a whistle-stop tour of the Burj al-Arab and Khalifa. It was trippy enough beholding these behemoths jet-lagged in blazing sunshine having left freezing dark England ten hours previously, but by the time the next busy departure lounge swam into view five hours later, that’s when things really, really started to get shit.

Continued in part 2: Dubai to Calcutta