Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Welcome to Hel

Yup, it’s not a spelling mistake. Hel (single “l”) is a small village in Northern Poland, situated at the sheer end of Hel Peninsula. I was nine when we moved from Hel to Gdynia. It’s a place that is practically dead in the winter time and busy-as-a-bee in summer.

We’ve been planning this trip for quite some time now. First, winter came. Yup, always surprised by snow and frost even though we know it’s winter time. But seriously, it was extremely cold in here. And cold + wind does NOT equal pleasure. So we passed on that back then. Then our lil’ boy got sick – first some kind of food poisoning or a virus, then some kind of flu. Now that he was healthy and we could feel spring in the air, we decided to go there last Saturday. Aaaaand… wind was blowing up to 100 km/h! So once again we passed on the trip. Luckily, Saturday night, our lil’ boy already asleep, so it was quiet in the house, and I could hear no wind at all! I looked out the window, saw it was raining so I knew that was it for the wind. The decision was made instantly – we’re going the next day. So happy we wake up Sunday morning and look out the window to spot… snow lying all around us! That freaky! I mean it wasn’t snowdrifts all around us, just 1 cm, but still. Where did that beloved and so impatiently awaited spring go??

Nevertheless, we packed Tusio’s lunch and off we went. We had one goal – to see the feeding of the seals. Yup, there are seals in Hel (single “l”, can’t say it about hell (double “l”), haven’t had a chance to verify that). The first one got there when I was still living there, so a long time ago. Well, something like 20 years ago ;)

Feeding takes place twice a day (11 AM and 2 PM) and is connected with some exercises that make the seals accustomed to medical procedures (well, that sounds horrible, as if any tests were conducted on them. By medical procedures I meant injections, USG, giving medicine and stuff). They get fish for completing every task they’re given. We decided to see the first feeding of the day.

As we got there early, first we took a walk on Wiejska street (the main street) and the promenade. It was a bit windy that day and cold as well, so we didn’t feel like walking too far, especially with Artur (Artur=Tusio, same person, name and nickname). Streets were empty, no people around (or only a few really).

With 11 am approaching, we headed towards the “seal house” or fokarium as it is called in Polish. In order to enter the place you have to pay 2 Polish zlotys (PLN, something like 0,50 EUR) per person. There’s a machine at the entrance that takes only 2 PLN coins, so you have to be prepared for that. Well, there is a machine in which you can change money next to it but it was broken the day when we arrived. When you put the coin in, the gate opens and you’re in. Now you can watch the seals. Be warned that they might bite you! ;) Or spill water on you. Which happens. We waited till 11 and the “show” started. It took almost an hour but was really pleasant to watch. Our kid was definitely satisfied with it. There’s some room for spectators, some standing at the same ground as the pools and some watching it from “above” (something like first floor). However, it might get really crowded in the summer season.

You are not allowed to throw coins into the pools. One seal died because of eating too many coins, I mean when she died they found hundreds of coins in her stomach. There is a special money box where you can donate coins for the seal house and it’s designed in a really great way. Loads of fun to throw coins in ;) I was really impressed with the idea.

You can also pay additional 2 PLN per person in order to enter the museum with the exhibition showing life of the Baltic Sea. However, again the machines operating the entrance, once again you need coins. We weren’t interested in going there (I’ve already been there) so I have no idea if the changing machine at that entrance worked ;)

What else can you do in Hel? There’s a maritime museum at the promenade, you can see the lighthouse (once it was open for tourists, so that you could climb to the top and look around to see the marvelous views of the Gdańsk Bay and the whole peninsula), you can bathe in the see, you can eat fabulous fresh fish in every diner or restaurant, you can sunbathe, you can simply enjoy yourself… You can take a water tram or a ferry and come to visit Tricity (Gdańsk, Sopot, Gdynia). I’m really aware of the fact that from a still and sleepy village in winter, Hel changes into a really loud, crowded and lively place in summer, but it’s still worth visiting. I really love that place. Although I don’t go there in high season ;)

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Tsardom of Russia

Our trip to Saint Petersburg wouldn't have been complete without visiting one of the symbols of the Tsardom of Russia - Tsarskoye Selo (now belonging to the town of Pushkin) and Catherine's Palace.

There are probably many different ways of getting to Tsarskoye Selo. We chose a train to Pushkin and then a marshrutka (a private bus) from the train station right to the palace. It took us a lot of courage and a lot of energy. But, hey, adventures must be thrilling! As I've already mentioned - us and Russian language - not friends. Niet. Definitely no. Russians that we met in Petersburg and English language - not friends. Niet. Definitely no. However, half speaking English - half Polish, I managed to buy train tickets for us. Then we somehow found the right train. Our third attempt to communicate with anyone was already on the train. We kinda didn't know when to get off and our skills of reading Russian letters were good but took loads of time. So we were scared we weren't gonna be quick enough to read the name of the station and run to the door ;) Yet another time we had no luck with speaking English. However, a very nice old lady looked at our ticket, read the destination and showed us when to get off. Good, old gestures and no language skills necessary ;) Yup, we made it to Pushkin, we found ourselves a marshrutka (lots of them standing outside the train station and waiting for tourists) and we were glad we were gonna make it to the palace. We thought that the way back would be much easier, as by then we would have already traveled one way ;) So simple, and so true.

The queue to the palace was very long, very very loooooong. And it wasn't the tourist season yet. We went there at the beginning of April, so it was still cold (but sunny, which made our trip really nice). We got ourselves the tickets, found our guide (who was speaking Russian, as far as I can remember) and we were finally able to enter the magic interiors of Catherine's Palace.

It was so spectacular, so gigantic, so diversified in style, so colourful, so amazing! I was so happy to be there. The Amber Hall - a definite must-see, even though it's still a replica of the real hall (still missing since WWII). I couldn't believe that the whole palace was smashed to the ground during WWII and totally rebuilt after it! But I'm really glad they did that. They managed to save most of the actual relics, though. So the stuff that we see there are not replicas - at least they say that ;)

There is also a huge park outside the palace. It was beautiful even without leaves on the trees. The paths, the bridges, the tiny buildings, the lake... A great place for a peaceful walk. Or for a date. I could see myself walking the paths in a ball gown...It was all so perfect.

The trip took us all day. We were really exhausted after it. We had no energy left so we had to skip going to Peterhof. We left it for our next visit to Saint Petersburg - together with Hermitage and Peter and Paul's Fortress.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Springtime in Russia

I can already feel spring in the air. Snow is melting, sun is shining, even birds are singing. I'm already waiting for flowers, although it's still only February. Our son is going to Egypt in March with his grandparents. They've just booked the trip, his passport is ready to pick up from the Office. I sooo want spring to come as soon as possible as I'm already waiting to put my travelling plans in motion ;)
But that's not what I wanted to write about today. It just all reminds me of that...

A couple of years ago I managed to make one of my great dreams come true. I visited Russia, Saint Petersburg, to be exact. We were quite close to that when we were studying in Finland. So that was a chance we had to take. We booked a hostel in Petersburg, bought train tickets and hopped on the train to find ourselves in a completely different world. Amazing, breathtaking, enormous, full of contrasts and totally strange to us. We didn't speak Russian. Although Polish might sound similar to Russian for many, in fact it's not that close... Let's start with the lettering and finish with the fact that really similar words mean totally different things. From my lessons of Russian that I took once all I could remember was how to read. And that totally saved us ;) But let's start from the beginning.

We arrived at "Finnish train station" having no roubles, no map and no ability to speak Russian, but so happy at the same time.
We tried to find some kind of information to ask for directions either to the metro station or to the nearest exchange. We had no luck. We decided to go for it and look for the places ourselves. We succeeded quite quickly (yup, that was when the ability to read Russian letters saved us for the first time) in finding the currency exchange, which made it possible for us to buy metro tickets. We somehow found ourselves a map (I can't quite remember where we had it from) and started looking for our hostel. Well, at first we missed it really, but found it at last. No luxuries, but it was enough to have a good rest and spend the whole day out anyhow.

As quickly as we got to the hostel, we decided to start exploring the city. For our first afternoon we chose Vasilyevsky Ostrov. It reminded me of the communist times. I can't remember these really, but the architecture there was so characteristic of those times. 

We also took a short walk on the Nevsky Prospekt, but we were so tired after the whole journey and so eager for our trip the next day (Pushkin! - I'll write about that one next time) that we decided to get back to the hostel for a good rest.

In the next couple of days, we managed to see some of the typical tourist spots in Saint Petersburg, that is" the Bronze Horseman (Peter the Great), the Palace Square, St. Isaac's Cathedral, Church of the Savior on Blood, Admiralty building, many, many bridges over the Neva, Griboyedov Canal, Kazan Cathedral and some really amazing metro stations (!). There's really a lot of places to see in Saint Petersburg. We didn't visit the Hermitage (which I don't regret that much) and we didn't find enough time to get to the Peter and Paul Fortress (which I do regret). Well, let's just say that the four days we spent there weren't really that much. And I knew right from the start that I wanted to visit Catherine's Palace which was already a trip within a trip. I'll get back there one day. Even despite the horrible border crossing on our way back to Finland. It's really worth it.

Of course, before the trip to Russia, I googled for all the information I could find. Tips were welcome as well. What I can share is that it's worth buying some souvenirs on a market square next to the Griboyedov's Canal. If you come from a Slavic country, don't speak English. Try to communicate in your own language, using hand gestures and maybe help yourself with English words - you'll pay much less than the prices on the products say. We were not bargaining really and yet we paid like one third of the price given on the products. Russians were really open, really friendly. I truly loved it there. Although I felt relieved when we finally crossed the Finnish border :)