Uno, Dos, Tres… España!

DSCN0968-2

On the 4th of December, somewhere between autumn depression and Christmas with New Year, I’m back to refreshing my blog. Thus, while writing my assignments and trying to prepare presentation, I have reminded that during last sunny and hot August I have visited Spain. Although it was only 10 days that time was very valuable as spent on learning Spanish language on a course. That course has taken place in Alicante and I had an opportunity to fly directly there, but I decided to visit Barcelona as well and kill two birds with one stone – two places in totally different regions and with different features and cultural aspects. Those differences were the most surprising for me. I wouldn’t have suspected that in whole country there are so many accents (I have been even more surprised when I have come to UK). Catalan language sounds more like French than Spanish but I managed to deal with that despite my very low language competences and complete lack of using English by Spanish people. One day my Spanish friend told me that the original Spanish language that is said to be the official one does not come from Madrid (as I thought) but from Castile (Valladolid and Palencia). When talking about cultural differences I guess that the most visible was for me two contrast attitudes to the Corrida. In Alicante one citizen and our language tutor in the same time has brought us to the Museum of Corrida and has spoken about it event with pride, about the cultural meaning, celebration and respecting bulls. However, in Barcelona there is a common conviction that Corrida and any events including fights with bulls are cruelty to animals and are not practiced there. Another difference is the splendor of modernistic-“gaudistic” Barcelona full of street art (and art in general), huge modern buildings, palaces, fountains, shopping centers contrasting with poverty and dirt of Alicante, where architecture is rather austere but sometimes in positive ways. Of course I don’t mean that Alicante is ugly. It has a beautiful castle, coast and old town are absolutely different than the rest of the city, and that rawness is interesting and charming in its way.

  Unfortunately my first days in Barcelona have not been too lucky. The desire of adventure, meeting new people, saving money and positive previous experiences I decided to use Couchsurfing again. However, this time I had rather negative experiences and adventures ccause of two insane people, this is why I have wasted two days dealing with them and completely unnecessary things despite exploring the beauty of Barcelona. Fortunately I was meant to visit Barcelona again after my course and then I decided to stay in a cheap hostel.

          If not the financial surprise from my aunt just before my trip I would have quite a disturbing problem. I didn’t check the prices of tickets for the transfer from Barcelona to Alicante and back and that cost about 100 euro. It’s a lot especially that on my way back in Valencia I have met two girls that have told me about Inter Rail ticket that allows travelling all around the Europe in comparable prices during a long period of time.

         The week in Alicante was the time to fall In love with Spanish food, parades and fiestas, people and their style of living and beautiful white beaches that were perfect to spend time by the evenings or even to sleep there. However, I have heard from one tutor that once a man slept on the beach and the wind covered him with sand, so the tractor (or whatever is the name of that machine that smooths the sand) didn’t notice him and an accident happened. Though I still think that sleeping on the beach is awesome. That was as well the time to hate the heat, filthy salty water of the Mediterranean Sea, night traffic on the streets and leakiness of windows there. It was also the time to meet fantastic people from all around the Europe. I’m not a specialised in cuisine but Spanish food is stunning for me. First of all tapas, so different snacks like small sandwiches, baked potatoes with sauce (patatas bravas), salami chorizo, olives, cheese, tortilla, fried squids and so on serving cold or warm are very popular during the day when it’s too hot to have a full hot meal. Paella, so fried rice mixed with sea fruits, chicken or vegetables, or all together – delicious! Fantastic smoked Spanish hams like jamon Serrano or jamon Iberico. Typical Spanish candies – turrones – kind of a nougat, and finally chocolate con churros – typical Spanish breakfast, fried pieces of cake served with hot chocolate. It should be compulsory to try all of those dishes! 🙂 Despite exploring Spanish cuisine our international girlish team had also an opportunity to explore the night life. There is nothing such pleasurous as walking around the city by the night, when it’s warm but not too much and there are a lot of people on the streets and in the pubs. One night we managed to visit a very special, little pub in which every centimeter of the walls was covered with handwriting and pictures made by pen. Charming, middle-age Spanish woman was serving unusual mojito drink called ‘coscorron’, which means that the drink hits your head. It’s delicious, prepared in a pot with special chopped mint and squised juices, however the recipe is secret of course. My most amazing experience in Alicante was definitely watching the sunset from the Castle of Santa Barbara, placed on a high hill. The landscape was stunning – marina, the city, mountains and the sea. And finally one of the most characteristic signs that I will always connect with Spain is shopping center – El Corte Ingles (English court?), it’s literally everywhere!

     After unfortunate events In Barcelona I had no motivation to go there again, but I haven’t seen that city at all and it was my big desire. I decided to make a stop in Valencia for one day and spend whole day on sightseeing and taking pictures. The most impressive was ‘Ciudad de las artes y las ciencias’ – City of the arts and sciences – a series of fantastic, futuristic buildings, like aquarium, planetarium, museum of science and museum of art. I just regret that I was too late to enter them and anyway I was out of money – reason to go back there. My second visit in Barcelona was very nice and I regret that I had so little time to spend there and again so little money – again it’s a reason to go there again as I haven’t managed to see all places that I wanted to. I was staying in a small, cheap hostel just next to Sagrada Familia called Ole Barcelona. They also have been giving leaflets about free walking and cycling tours, flamenco and tapas nights and so on and vouchers for dinner, all those events are taking place in Travel Bar. There I have met four Polish girls with whom I spent an evening on fountains show. I managed to see Park Guell and take a cycle tour around the Gaudi’s buildings. Barcelona is probably still the only one city (in Europe?) where free cycle tours take place. But still there are a lot of places in Barcelona for me to see like Old Town or Montjuic. And then was the end of my Spanish adventure and it was the time to go back to Poland.

The Pearl of the Balkans

Ohrid

As small as a british county, full of sunshine and natural beauty Macedonia is a place that should be on the ‘got to go’ list of every traveler.

Mats mats’ – this is how people call cats in Macedonia and other Balkan countries. What’s surprising cats are not reacting differently from any other in the world. Before I have visited Macedonia, Balkans had been for me the synonym of poverty, danger and many other not positive features. For sure it’s a little bit of truth in that, but the reality looks more gladly in general. Initially my trip there was a huge and frustrating challenge for me, mainly cause of the language barrier. Everywhere I have been so far I could have easily communicate in English (more or less). I was terrified when I had to transfer from point A to point B without any ability to communicate in that language, and what is worse, without knowing the alphabet. That was the time when I have come to the conclusion that people’s attitude changes inversely to the decrease in latitude and in direct proportion to the amount of receiving sunshine. I didn’t have to wait long for help. Literally everybody there asked for help is willing to help. This is probably not only my observation. I have been to Macedonia for a seminar and all of the participants of that seminar that I have been talking to said exactly the same, and described Macedonians as relaxed, chilled out, with positive attitude to life and problems.

Macedonia is in fact a poor country. 100 denarii is about £1,5; and in comparison you can buy the pack of cigarettes for 60 denarii (!). People there are complaining of course, but as my friend Sasha claimed – Macedonian will be able to have fun and party even if he doesn’t have a penny to his name… or he will simply resign of other spending :). The centre of Skopje, the capital, is full of new and new, beautiful buildings in a neo-antic style. The central square looks far more better than a few of years ago, what you can admit by looking at the old photographs. If the development will go like this, in my opinion Skopje may become a popular touristic place. However, one of my Macedonian friends, Bube has a different point of view. She claims that the right-wing government should invest in education and new jobs instead of spending money on monuments and huge buildings that are ought to satisfy the rampant ego of politicians. Exactly those buildings and monuments of Alexander the Great and Philip II are the reason of conflicts between Macedonia and Greece. Macedonian government claim its rights to build a national tradition on the basis of the tradition and culture of the ancient Macedonia. Greeks are not accepting that and hold that they have greater rights to that, both territorially and culturally. I’m talking to my other friend, Vojislav, and he is explaining me that after all ages that this territory got through like Roman Empire, influx of Slavs and 500 years of Turkish domination, it is hard to consider any cultural heritage of ancient Macedonia or the blood line with Alexander the Great. Because of that conflict Greece is blocking Macedonia’s ability to join the European Union or NATO. What is more Greece does not agree to confer Macedonia’s name of the ancient land, so the official name of that country is Macedonia-FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Apparently it’s better not to mention that suffix to any Macedonian cause it may be taken as offending. However, for them money is far greater problem anyway. Those Macedonian that I’ve met openly admit that their country is poor, and they don’t see any life perspectives there. ‘State should firstly take care of its citizens, and after that of tourists’ concludes Bube. ‘That is why Macedonians don’t like those monuments and buildings, no matter how beautiful they are’ adds Vojislav.

     The seminar that I was going to, took place in Ohrid. I was trying to find any printed guide to Macedonia or that city but I failed. I found a couple of short descriptions in the Internet, saying that Ohrid is the most beautiful place in a whole country and now I am able to agree with that. It’s located by the huge, transparent and warm lake, around which I haven’t find even one sandy beach, just the rocky ones. The Ohrid Lake has a calming influence on a scorching Macedonian climate. It’s surrounded by the mountains, that are really worth to climb on to see that stunning landscape of two lakes on two different sides of the mountain in two different countries (border with Albania on Galicica mountain). Macedonia in general enchants with the beauty of nature, and in some cases even architecture blend with the nature, like in the old part of Ohrid where red and orange roofs of white houses harmonise with the green hill, trees and turquoise lake. On the streets there are plenty of old Yugoslavian cars and on the top of that hill there is a fortress. On the way down the hill there is beautiful forest and stairs leading to a couple of monasteries. One of them is the apparently the oldest University in Europe – it’s the church of Saint Clement, student of the Saints Cyril and Methodius. Another one is probably the most popular, it’s Kaneo of the Saint John Theologian placed on the edge of the cliff and it’s, I think, the most beautiful view on the Ohrid and the lake. Despite all that Macedonian also use the nature in the art. The most popular souvenir from Ohrid are Ohrid’s pearls and that jewelery is made of fish scales, of course the process of producing is secret.

Another enchanting element of Macedonian nature are its gifts. Fruits and vegetables differs totally by its colours, size and taste from those ones from the north. Macedonians use it perfectly in their dishes, like Shopska salad or Macedonian salad. There is a lot of Turkish influence in Macedonian cuisine and culture in general (cuisine, music, dance, clothes and so on). The basis of every meal is bread, what I can understand for breakfast, but for dinner or supper it’s not such common for me. Some of the traditional dishes are Tavce Gravce – baked sausage with baked beans in sauce, Kebapchinja – baked minced lamb, veal and beef shaped like sticks, or Pleskavica – a cutlet or burger with various etceteras, like eggs, cheese or onion. Typical desert is Tulumba – yeast-cake in sugar syrup or Baclava – puff pastry with nuts and pistachios also in a sugar syrup.

       The seminar in Ohrid was an amazing opportunity to get to know Macedonian culture, local traditions and language. The initiators of that international events were philologists from the University of Cyril and Methodius in Skopje. The seminar has been created to broaden the interest in Macedonian culture and problems among Europeans. The first seminar has taken place in 1967 and since that time there have been 45 editions. From year to year there have been more and more participants and Universities that established a cooperation with University in Skopje. The seminar takes place every year and covers two events – the conference and summer school. The conference gathers philologists from different countries to discuss various Macedonian problems and present their essays. Students on courses connected with Macedonia or Balkans take part in summer school. During the seminar there are lectureships on the Macedonian language, both for beginners and advanced, and different lectures on Macedonian history, culture, literature and geography  spoken in Macedonian. Apart from that summer school offers as well the cultural course of national dances and singing tutorials and trips to different villages and cities like Struga, national park in Vevcany, Bitola, Krusevo or Sveti Naum – that last one you visit to listen the heart of Saint Naum lying in the tomb in Monastery. This is what the legend says that his heart is still beating.

        There are not many places on such seminar, those are two places per each partner university, that is why the possibility of taking part in such seminar is the dream of every student of Slavonic philology. For some students it’s a unique opportunity, some of them manage to come back once again to improve their assignments. One is sure, that everybody goes back happy after that seminar and the time they have spent there is unique, valuable experience, however not only students of philology can experience that – everybody who visits Macedonia shares similar experience. Life in that country is cheap, trip relatively inexpensive, people delectable, views and landscapes stunning – Macedonia and Ohrid are definitely places ‘got to go’ and it’s worth considering it as a destination for the next trip.

Praguedise

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Spring holiday break was coming and I had no plans for it. I was thinking about visiting Prague, with some friends to accompany and by the cheap cost. But eventually the group of friends split, some of them resigned cause we were waiting too long and prices increased. The Prague has fallen. However, some personal issues, daily cases and other etceteras decided that the Prague has been reactivated, but by hitchhike and in a two people team. It was completely spontaneous and unprepared. We didn’t actually have any experience in hitchhiking so we went without any itinerary, map, any weapon like pepper spray, only the backpack, aim and no experience! In the morning we got the tram to get to the borders of the city, pulled out a board saying ‘Prague’ and were just walking down the road. We were extremely lucky, the longest we have been waiting for someone to stop was half of hour in Krakow where we were departure from. Right in the beginning of our journey we had the first results of our lack of preparation. One nice man told us to go to Chyzne instead of Cieszyn, cause it’s more people going there and that was the truth. Although in the next car we realized that Chyzne is on the border with Slovakia, not Czech Republic. Let’s say it’s just cause it was our first time. On the next stop we bought the map and re-planned our route.

We had a lot of luck and on our way we met plenty of really nice drivers. We reached Slovakia in four cars, I mean – with four transfers. Young couple gave us a lift to Liptovsky Mikulas, and then we realized that we have to get from the centre of the city that we completely don’t know to any motorway on the outskirts. So we were following the road signs to Zylina but we couldn’t find any motorway. We stopped to catch any car but nobody wanted to take us. Finally one nice man told us that the road is quite close. And apparently it was but going on a relatively big bridge. My friend climbed on that bank among the bushes and branches and checked which way should we pick, and then it was my turn to join her. It was another stroke of luck when just after 3 minutes one man stopped and gave us a lift right to the border with Czech Republic in Trencin and helped us to plan the rest of the route. We were meant to catch a car to Brno and after some time we managed to, but what is almost unbelievable, after a short talk the driver found out that we are going to Prague and he declared that he is going there as well and may take us directly there. He was incredibly nice, talkative, offered us to show the hill in Slavkov (Austerlitz) where the famous Battle of the Three Emperors happened, and when we finally reached Prague, bought us tickets to underground and explained how to get where we wanted to get. It was long but very nice and a little bit adventurous way.

Apparently we didn’t really know how we want to spend time In Prague. After 12 hours of travelling there through Slovakia we manager to get to our host whom we fund on Couchsurfing – site that enables meeting people from all around the Word when travelling and staying In their places (or opposite – host other people). We went with Jan to very nice old pub in artistic area, where I have accidentally invented a new way of drinking beer. That time I was a big fan of Radler (or Shandy however you call it) – beer with Sprite. Unfortunately they had neither Radler nor just Sprite. In Poland it is popular to drink beer with syrups like raspberry or ginger, what is similar to British blackcurrant beer but the syrup is a little bit more thick. Although I forgot how to say ‘syrup’ in English and asked for the beer with juice. Then the barman asked me if I prefer apple or orange which was quite surprising, but I didn’t give up and choose orange. Then barman asked me in what proportion do I want that ‘one to one?’. My eyes grew bigger and then I realized what I ordered, so I just nodded to confirm. But what was the most surprising is that this beer was pretty good! 🙂

We spent our first Day In Prague on exploring Vysehrad with our host Jan. After that we were straying around Andel district to find the work place of our next host – Italian Francesco. As we found out later he was working in Ferrero, so all the time he was sharing with us those amazing chocolates. During the rest of the day we had some time so see Hradcany and in the evening we hit to conquer night clubs, including famous Sasazu which is apparently one of the biggest clubs in Europe or something like that. We had such an awesome company with our host and his friends that we didn’t really see the city – only the old town.

After three days spent in Prague we wanted to go back although, we set off a bit too late. It was rainy Sunday, and we were standing in that rain wet waiting for any car to stop by the entrance to the highway. After quite a long time we decided that it won’t work and came back to our Italian. We wanted to go by train to Ostrava next day and catch any car there to Poland, as it’s pretty close to the border. We were exhausted by this stay in Prague and no I know that returns by hitchhike are very hard and depressing. Thanks to the nice old lady we got a lift to the motorway already on a Polish side. From there, again luckily, took us an English man working in Poland and going to Rybnik. And there was the most depressing moment of our journey. We were waiting for hours until one lovely student gave us a lift closer to the motorway and told us that in any case we can spend a night in student houses nearby. Again we were standing for hours freezing and finally we were so desperate that we decided to climb to that motorway. And then in the middle of our way I spontaneously decided to keep showing our board AND A CAR STOPPED THEN! It was so unbelievable! We were so excited and enthusiastic that the driver loved us from the very beginning. And this is how we finished our journey in Krakow thanks to lovely Sir Artur 🙂

Potatokraine

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The trip to the Ukraine was the beginning of the short period of travelling with my friend Ada. Everything started with the Erasmus recruitment. We asked in International Office how we can earn some additional points for the Erasmus exchange and one of the ways was to take part in short term student exchange. I didn’t really know that our University offer such kind of stuff. We got qualified for the trip to the Ternopil in April 2012. The agreement of that exchange is very good idea – student needs to pay 100 PLN (about £20) on the account of University and pay for the transport to the place of exchange, the rest is paid by University.

 

Before the trip the biggest problem was how to get to Ternopil (Ukraine) the cheapest way. Most of the people in our group who has already been on such exchanges wanted to go there by car, but there wuldn’t be enough space for us all. Our supervisor informed us that apart from us there is another group of students from another University in our city that is going for that exchange as well. Supervisor of that other group offered renting a bus which was supposed to take us to Ternopil and back for 200 PLN (about £40). Actually everybody agreed for that option and it wouldn’t probably change if not the fact that when I asked that supervisor for the invoice for those money, he started to explain that not all of those costs are able to be invoiced (like bribes in Ukraine an stuff…) and he would not be able to give the invoice for all the money we would pay. That was very suspicious so we decided to resign of his offer and get to Ukraine by ourselves by train to Przemysl, and from there take the ‘couch’ to Ternopil. But the supervisor of the other group held his own and kept calling me every time giving the lower price from the previous one…

 

All in all after a small before trip party we got onto the train station almost losing half of the group which wouldn’t be on time in the train at 4 am. During the transfer in Przemysl, lovely dirty post-communist city, we treated ourselves with underdone scrambled eggs in dingy bar neraby the station. Right after that we found our ‘couch’. So that ‘couch’ turned out to be a dilapidated per city bus ‘Ikarus’ (old, but I mean really old Hungarian model of a bus), filled up to the roof with different food, meant, vegetables, fruits packed even into the holes of air condition regulators, very well camouflaged to confuse the scary boarder agents. Despite the Spartan conditions in the bu our trip was not that bad, after all everybody survived. It was my first time when I travelled to the east of Europe and I must admit that just after getting a stamp in the passport I was shocked by the culture differences. This time the border was actually a border. Right behind the borderline I got punched in the face by a total different world. On our route we were passing only fields and little towns with the domination of fields. Like if there were no villages, suburbs or anything – void and then couple of blocks and again and again. Situation that I will probably never forget – our trip was in April right before the Euro 2012 (in Poland and Ukraine) – we are driving peacefully on the riddled road and then on the horizon there appeared something big and grey. That construction or whatever it was started to grow as we were getting closer. After some time it seemed to be even something nice and… pretty? Next to it there were two massive hills of sand and a couple of blocks of flats, but apart from that all around fields and nothing. I got really confused so I asked one old lady in the bus what is this thing and what response I got… ‘stadion, Kiev’. Didn’t ask for anything else 🙂

 

How about the Ternopil by itself. There is a big lake inside of the city dividing it into two parts. It’s really useful thing especially in the summer, I guess. Unfortunately we in the April had no choice but wearing jackets and coats. The University we came to visit offered us some kind of educational-cultural programme. About all those more formal meetings like conference and stuff our group was not really positive, we did not really attend these. We have been on a couple of trips around the area, in Zbaraz, Krzemieniec and … BEER FACTORY!. Ukrainian students turned out to be really nice company and took care of our entertainment. Well, the stereotypes about drinking are really true. I had to be really assertive in that situation cause I am not the biggest fan of alcohol, and their propensity to drink is insane. I guess Polish have the same abilities, guys from our group were delighted by the drinking company. I am not the fun of clubbing as well however, Ukrainian clubs are probably the best I have visited so far (even better then Sasazu in Prague!). Long kilometres of dance floors, plenty of people, good music, charismatic DJs and other good stuff and good fun.

 

Of course very important part of every trip is the cuisine. Well, in our case it wasn’t great. We had dinners in the University’s canteen but every after we had to eat up some more because of the tiny portions, but even there it was possible to notice the characteristics of Ukrainian cuisine. Considering the portions of food on the plate it was more or less like this: meat was about 1/8 of the plate, some kind of poor salad ¼ and finally ¾ if not more was potatoes! Yey for potatoes, they are EVERYWHERE! Every single thing in Ukrainian cuisine might be connected with potatoes, it’s simply the base for that cuisine. We went on one city trip to the bakery to have a snack, my friend took a filled bun, you know like those normally served with cheese and ham or something sweet like jam. He got bun stuffed with… yes, potatoes :).We went to Italian pizzeria, the speciality was the Ukrainian pizza – with potatoes and onion, mmm yummy! Voda, of course made of potatoes as well :). So gourmets without excitement :(.

 

We had with Ada very ambitious plan of making a reportage about mass murders of dogs in Ukraine before Euro 2012 however, we didn’t have enough time to collect the material, but when we finally had some, our translator was busy. We were meant to prepare this after the trip but the enthusiasm went down and it didn’t happen. And that was pretty much out week in Ternopil. For some in our group every day ended with a party, other were a bit more exhausted so they were falling asleep before 9pm. Last day we even managed to get lost getting into the wrong bus, unfortunately that was the only one rainy day, but really rainy. Farewell was sweet and lovely. We met fantastic people but then the time came to get into the same old Ikarus bus, hide some illegal extra packages of cigarettes into underwear to be able to take them through the border and get back. We are so lucky people so to have some more adventures we got a flat tire and missed the last train to Krakow. We spent a lovely night on the train station in Rzeszow then and in the morning finally got back home. Very nice trip :).