Did you ever read my article about Cuba?
Click here if you want to know why you should visit sooner rather than later
Did you ever read my article about Cuba?
Click here if you want to know why you should visit sooner rather than later
It was raining when we left Vilnius along the straight, featureless, flat road to the Polish border. There were few cars but plenty of mega-trucks were bowling along at top speed, stirring up eddies of dust which spiralled up behind them. and floated around in the air long after they had passed and which coated everything with a fine white dust.
We were pulled over at the border and our papers inspected. The guards asked us to open the back of the van but it transpired that they were looking for humans, not drugs this time. Satisfied that we were not people trafficiking we were allowed to continue. We had no map and the satellite system had decided to stop working but we followed the signs to Warsaw along the main road which cut straight through the centres of the little villages which were mainly spookily deserted.
We knew that we wouldn’t make it to Warsaw before dark so at the first largish town that we came to we pulled into a Tesco car park and decided to find a room for the night; after stocking up with vodka of course.
We were stood in the enormous vodka section in the supermarket trying to calculate exchange rates and also debating whether we would be permitted to pay in Euros as we had no Polish currency on us, when a blond lady overheard us and asked in broken English if she could help us. She then got very excited and ordered us to remain exactly where we were, before returning soon with her husband in tow. It turned out that he was English and she wanted him to help us, but also for him to have the opportunity to meet some English speakers as so few ever turned up in their town.
We asked if they could recommend a hotel and after a quick conversation Anna with what I learnt was her catchphrase of ‘Come on baby’ steered me outside, across the car park and up the steps into a little grill/restaurant opposite. After another long conversation in Polish to the man behind the counter she turned to me and explained that she had negotiated a special rate for us for the night in the rooms above the restaurant. Returning together to the supermarket S and I bought our vodka and grapefruit juice to go with it as instructed by the feisty Anna ( and it was a surprisingly perfect combo as it turned out) and then we invited her and Tim to join us in our room for a thank you drink for sorting the hotel for us.
After not just one drink, but nearly a bottle later between three of us Anna staggered home on the arm of Tim who was not drinking. We had had a lovely evening but I had commented at one stage to S that it reminded me of a scene from a Michael Palin travel documentary when he found himself drinking vodka in a little hut with strangers who showed off their display of Kalashnikov rifles.
There were no guns present to my knowledge but there was dancing and music and oodles of vodka and I was invited to spend some ‘extra special time’ alone with Anna. Flattered, I kindly declined (I did consider it briefly – for research only you understand) but I kindly declined and we swapped email addresses and then they disappeared into the deserted Tesco car park leaving us alone in a totally deserted building.
A door at the end of our corridor advertised private dancing – we suspect that we may have been staying in a brothel – Anna had laughed when we asked her and she said no problem – as it was Easter Saturday everybody would be staying home! We woke to snow falling outside and a man chopping firewood from a big pile of logs in the car park. Debating whether to stay for another night or to go I voted to leave as I was getting cabin fever – it was all just a touch too weird even for me and so we set off for the drive to Warsaw. The scenery became slightly more hilly and a bit greener but the towns were still weirdly empty of people.
We stopped to check out a mausoleum by the side of the road, although as we didn’t have a clue where we were and nobody spoke English we don’t know what it was commemorating, but it was quite impressive, and as the afternoon drew in, we arrived in the outskirts of Warsaw and found a not great but OK sort of a hostel in which to spend the night.
I would like offer up an apology at this stage to S who had wanted to stay behind in our little brothel and rest up for a day, but bless him, he had given way to keep me happy. After the trauma of navigating for me he was again unwell – I AM sorry S – and he had a really bad night’s sleep in the hostel – and then I hit him with the news that I that I had to get back to the UK to try to rectify an unrolling family crisis. And like AT THAT VERY MOMENT!
It was Easter Sunday and there were no taxis to be had, but the guy in our hostel informed me that the trains would be running and that I could walk to the local station. Hugging S goodbye I set off with my rucksack and walked through deserted streets in the snow to the station. The useless guy at the hostel had assured me that all trains would go via the airport from the station, but did they hell!
I glimpsed the airport far off in the distance – and then the train swung away in the opposite direction. I was unsure what to do. Nobody could speak to me in English and I even considered phoning my Polish friend back in England and asking her to translate for me, so eventually I decided to get off the train and catch one going back. For twenty minutes I really thought that I had made a huge error as I was in the middle of nowhere, it was still snowing and for all that I knew, there may only have been that one train running on Easter Sunday.
I was just gathering my courage to get to the road and hitchhike when a train slowly rumbled into view. Phew, was I glad to see it but I still had to work out where the hell the airport was. I got on into the guard’s van and with a lot of sign language, he understood that I wanted the airport and I understood that I was on the wrong track and had to change trains. As he set off to collect the tickets I grabbed him and gabbled like a mad woman that he had to stay with me until he had deposited me at the correct station. He didn’t understand me but he did stay, probably afraid that I might totally implode, and he did indicate where I had to swap over to the waiting train on the other platform – even radioing them and instructing them to wait while I ran across. With him encouraging me and the other guard cheering me over to him I finally collapsed in a heap on the correct train to the airport.
I still didn’t have a ticket for a flight but that bit was easy to sort out. Unlike much of the UK, wifi is not restricted to some measly twenty minutes and it was free throughout Chopin airport so I was able to book a ticket using my phone and within a couple of hours I was in the air and on my way back to the UK.
I had certainly blasted through the Baltics. My adventure had come to a much more abrupt end than I had imagined or intended and it had not been without its dramas from the moment that I had stepped off the plane in Helsinki to my final trip to the airport in Warsaw but I had had fun.
I had met some lovely people and I have made some new friends. I had to care for somebody during epileptic seizures, drive a left hand drive van on the wrong side of the road and I filled in some very big gaps in my knowledge of European history.
The Baltic States are beautiful; populated by an extremely resilient, technologically aware people – the majority of whom speak several languages. The architecture in the old towns is interesting, there are strong national identities and cultures and the food is great, even if you don’t always know what is on your plate. If you fancy visiting Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, don’t hesitate. They are seriously up and coming and excellent value for money.
I am currently in Estonia
Sao Paulo and a strange coincidence.
Sao Paulo, or Sao Pao as it is affectionately called, scared me just a little bit.
It is the third largest mega-city on the planet depending on which criteria you grade it by. I was told that it would be brash, business-orientated and dangerous, full of skyscrapers and hard-nosed professionals. I was told that nobody visits it and I should get in and out as fast as possible. But I also knew somebody who used to live there and he told me that it has a knack of getting under your skin in a good way too.
I planned to stay just two nights and that was two nights more than I wanted, but in the end I stayed six!
I liked it. Yes, it was enormous and it had very little culture visible on the surface, but dig deep and it is there.
So, what did I get up to?
Well first up, while my hostel wasn’t anything special; from the outside it just looked like any old house in a suburban street but it was perfect for me. It was a short walk from a metro station and it had a large courtyard at the front where we all gathered and chatted and drank most evenings and it had large squoosy mats inside for lolling around on. And there were parrots in the trees in the street. The Grand Prix was taking place in Sao Paulo the weekend that I arrived and some of the hostel guests were staying in the city for that. Others were using the hostel as a base for work or interviews and others, like me, were simply travelling. There were a lot of things that could have been improved about the hostel but, as usual, it was the group dynamics of the guests which made it special.
One afternoon I went along on one of the free walking tours along the Avenida Paulista wondering how on earth anyone could get a walking tour out of a main shopping thoroughfare. But I learnt all about the history of the city and I was told that when each huge skyscraper was built the developers were obliged to include a ‘cultural centre’ within the building.
As a result, there are little museums and art galleries dotted about everywhere and a deeply ingrained appreciation for the arts. The street art, is as is usual in South America, everywhere, of high quality and it’s largely encouraged. I discovered bang in the centre of the main business district a lovely park – an true oasis of calm from the hubub outside, and I discovered that Sao Pao really does love a good, tall radio mast! Check out any building here and it will have the most massive, oversized mast that you have ever seen. I met Nick and Lucy who are travelling together on their motorbike and they have a perfect write-up and photgraph of the ridiculous masts in their report here: Elgrandetour
There is an excellent shiny underground system and I had heard of its reputation in the rush hour. So when I found myself down in the main station as the peak rush hour descended upon me I have to admit to a bubbling up of a latent agoraphobia. I held my nerve and my breath and I went with the flow. The squeeze on the London Tube is NOTHING compared to this and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I would get onto one of the packed trains from five people deep. The next train arrived and the lady behind me began to push. And push and push. And when I was somehow on she yelled at the man behind her to push her harder!
I survived my metro experience and I went on to visit the bright pink skyscraper near to my hostel which was hosting a very large Salvador Dali exhibition in its groundfloor culture centre. I also visited the cathedral in the old town centre (as far as Sao Pao has an old centre) and I went along to the MASP museum which is 4 floors of art housed in a large concrete block on stilts on Avenida Paulista. I also went along to the Museo MAM which is set in a large green park with skyscrapers clamouring around the edge and reminded me of postcard scenes from Central Park in New York.
And along with Giovani from Italy and Ian from the UK I went up to the top of one of the huge buildings which has opened up its upper deck to visitors – although that was a bit of a mission. We set off on foot, and after an hour and a half of very fast walking we finally found the building in the city centre – just as it was closing.
Faced with three hot and sweaty travellers the lady on the desk luckily took pity on us and she allowed us to join the queue. So we queued and we queued. For another hour and a half until it was finally our turn to go up in the elevators. And then we were only allowed a strict five minutes on the balcony – and hilariously this was actually timed by a lady with a stop-watch who got quite stroppy with us when we wanted to wait just a few seconds more!
I was in my last couple of weeks in South America and I wanted to cram as much in as possible yet I wanted time to slow right down so that I could savour the last few days.
So I chilled and I chatted and I went out walking. I planned to go straight to Rio but at the last minute I jumped on a bus on my own to Paraty. I jumped on the wrong bus and I eventually arrived quite late at night. It was 11pm and I didn’t especially like the hostel that I had checked into so I decided that, despite the next day being my birthday, I would move straight on to Rio.
And then I woke up and went for breakfast which was served at the beach bar. Sitting with my toes in the sand I changed my mind and I had just decided that I would spend my birthday lying on a towel in this most idylic of places, when the Brazilian lady at the next table struck up a conversation with me.
She was on holiday and she told me that she planned to take off in her car and visit an indigenous community, find a deserted beach and trek to a secret waterfall – she may or may not return to Paraty that night – she may camp out in her tent or she may find a hostel – and then she asked if I would I like to join her.
I thought for all of fifteen seconds and then I discounted all the rules about strangers and I dashed inside the hostel, stuffed my things back in my rucksack and jumped into her car. Twenty minutes up the road I asked her – we were both communicating in Spanish which was our second language – I asked her name!!
And the coincidence that I mentioned at the top of this post?
I was searching the internet for a photo that depicts the craziness of the Sao Paulo metro system. My chosen photo turned out to be posted on a Brazilian website and I had actually worked alongside the author when we were both volunteering in Peru!
If you want any information about Brazil and especially Sao Paulo, do check out The Books are on the Table by Andy Martin
I visited Milan during the month of February. Every sort of weather was thrown at us but that certainly didn’t dampen my enjoyment of a very chic, cosmopolitan city.
I believe that the best way to explore any city is to arm yourself with a map and just get out there and wander up and down its streets and alleyways, but this guide will give you an idea of those things that I am glad to have discovered in Milan