This is it (Epilogue)

After we left Krakow, we spent hours and hours on the road till we got where that was all supposed to end, the Polish-Belarus border where we had our passports stamped again. Our visas expired and we couldn’t stay in Europe any longer… It started raining incredibly heavily, that was the biggest and most terrifying thunder storm even a more scarier one that I saw when I was spending a summer at my Granny’s in a village years ago… Someone said that was Europe saying goodbye… That was a very loud and emotional goodbye…
The train that was taking us from Brest to Moscow jerked us back into a grim reality… I wished our trip had gone on and on and never had to end… All we had left was an incredibly heavy suitcase, loads of gigabytes of photos and mind overflowing with fond memories of the days that never seemed to have gone by so quick. As we got on the train, it hit me how much I’d be missing Europe and all those feelings I had experienced during my trip there… I was ready to shout from the mountain top “Europe, I’m in love with you, you’ll always be on my mind whatever I do and whatever I go. I know we’re not supposed to be together so I’ll stay in love with you forever because I will never get to see your true colours so you won’t left me disappointed and heartbroken…”
Never in my life have I learnt so much within such a short space of time… Not just about some facts of the history of the countries we have visited and also about people around me and more importantly, myself… We were given a chance to find ourselves miles and miles away from home and mingled with unknown crowds and see a multiple of faces and hear a diversity of languages… We were now international!!!
I didn’t really expect I’d ever get a chance to go abroad even though my degree in English and German fuelled my desire to see what life is like across the border. And I did learn to see, feel and hear in a new way… Yes, the sky and air are the same wherever you go but it is a vibe that makes a place different from all the rest. I was fascinated by European vibes and the way they made me feel the way I’ve never felt before.
That was a fairytale that finally came true and of course it never turns out the way you imagined it would be. I knew I would never be the same again once this fairytale happened to me… I grew to love my own country in some other extraordinary way and became more acutely aware one of the problems we are facing as a nation. It was time to get back to normal and be Russian, but not a Russian I used to be. I was feeling sad and even my favourite band playing in a taxi that was taking us home from the railway station the morning when we came back from Moscow didn’t bring any solace… But I was happy I did it all for me and nobody else… All those places I’ve been to will never be just a picture (pictures don’t so them justice anyway), all the things I took back home with me are a living memory of what was one of the best things that has happened to me so far… Writing about it in the language I’m hugely passionate about was sure the next best thing. Travelling is unarguably the best thing you can do with your time and money. I’m grateful to everyone that inspired me to embark on this life-changing trip and helped me make it possible, you know who you are! Here is to lots and lots exciting things to come!

P.S. As I’m writing this, I’m about to pack my bags for another trip… Well, that’s going to be another story I think. BON VOYAGE to me again!!!

And finally… Kraków

We finally became aware our trip coming to an end when we were on our way back to Poland where it all started eight days ago. Our last hotel was in Bielsko-Biała. It was quite a long way there from Vienna. It was an average Polish hotel but the elevator there has to be seen to be believed. You actually have to lock yourself out by busting open a metal door. I’ve been got stuck in an elevator in my life but I thought that was going to be the first time I had… Luckily, we got up to our room safely. Over the course of our trip we got so used to packing and unpacking that we couldn’t believe that was actually the last we had to go through this routine during this trip… It was a quiet evening and I think at that point we were getting nostalgic and got back in our mind to the trip we were missing so much before it was even over. We just couldn’t get our heads around the fact that was almost it and honestly didn’t have our hopes high about the last day of the trip…
Next day we were Kraków bound. It was a couple of hours’ drive outside Bielsko-Biała. We were not buzzing so much about this drive around the South of Poland and it was sad to realize that was now something we had previously seen when we set out on our trip. We were about to experience one of the oldest cities in Poland, one of the country’s major cultural and economic hubs. It used to be the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569 when Sigismund III Vasa relocated the court to Warsaw. I took a quick nap on our way to the city, I think that was a sleepless night in the city of dreams catching up with me… The weather was cloudy again…
First we made a quick stop for souvenir shopping. Luckily for us, the crowd instinct didn’t take over and we didn’t join the rest of the group in flocking one single shop which immediately got overcrowded with our tourists. We went to a shop nearby and had a bit of a shopping spree because that was one of those rare occassions when we didn’t care to save up because we had a lot of złoty left to spare. I thoroughly enjoyed my shopping experience and thought I actually might be over my limit with everything I got but the money we had with us was just enough to pay for everything. Poland is a place where you get the best deals (at least for food and souvenirs).
As we were waiting on the rest of the group, we took some snaps of the Kraków Barbican which is a fortification of teh city walls that leads into the Old Town (Stare Miasto) of the city. We saw some pastry on sale just around the corner at ridiculous 1 zł. As we found out later that was a symbol of Kraków called obwarzanki (bagels), a kind of bread ring. It’s a shame we didn’t try one. It’s so hard to make up your mind on the go when there is so much going on.
Our walking tour of the city began near the Grunwald Monument which honors the Battle of Grunwald of 1410 during the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War, one of the largest battles in Medieval Europe. It marked an enormously important victory for Poland and its allies. That was actually one of the first sights of Kraków which I saw long before I came here. My Mum was in this city years before I was born and I remember one of my favourite things to do growing up especially when I had to stay home alone to keep me busy was looking through lots of old photos and one of those was of Mum near that very monument. It was surreal I was standing there, some thirty years on.
We had a lovely and friendly guide whom I instantly liked even despite of her heavy accent. She really seemed to be trying to make us welcome in the city which I think is what a guide’s job is all about. It looked like it was just about to start raining and we were ready to brave rain again. The city had a distinct medieval feel to it and despite the nasty weather, I was feeling at home there… We were taking a nice relaxed stroll of some of the streets with a running commentary of the city’s history and got to the entrance to the Barbican. I loved this massive wall and there were some nice photo opportunities there. There were some buskers playing some national music and I wanted to have my picture taken near one of them and this man was willing to pose with me with a happy smile on his face.
At some point it started really pissing it down and the guide said they get lots of rainfalls here probably just as much as in London. I really loved the reference to this city I was dying to visit one day. I felt my feet soaking through but I didn’t really care maybe because for a second I pictured myself walking the streets of London in a soaking rain and got carried away by my little fantasy. The streets of Kraków are arranged in some intimate way and with the rain pouring it felt that it was just me and the city and the time stood still… We were shown one of the buildings of the Jagiellonian University, one of the oldest universities in the world and the rain was playing a nice lovely tune as if that was me making for Vienna where I didn’t get to hear any music playing…
The rain stopped (it seemed it had been raining for ages) and I understood why we saw so many rain ponchos on sale… I thought about London again… We took a stroll along Floriańska Street lined with many cafes, restaurants where you can stop for a drink and watch various people go by… I was loving the vibe and the crowds… There were lots of horse-drawn carriages ridden by some young people and lots of tours to Auschwitz on offer. I used to be into the history of the WWII and I’d love to take a tour of an extermination camp even though I know there are lots of disturbing views there and such trips can have a negative emotional impact especially on faint-hearted people…
We made our way into Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe. It felt that architecture and history was just a step away and the square was magnificent. There were lots of beautiful flowers on sale here but it is considered illegal to export flowers from abroad so we decided not to take risks… We knew Mum would have been so happy to get some though… We also got to listen to the heynal played each hour from the tower of St.Mary’s Church. According to the tradition, we were waving at a man playing heynal and that made the entire experience even more magical.
We were now to go up Wawel Hill consisting of many buildings including Wawel Palace and Wawel Cathedral. Before that we made a quick stop at some Italian-style court and saw some newly wedded couples here. While there was a brief pause, the guide took a phone call and it was fascinating to do some eavesdropping and enjoy some Polish and hear her say the word dziękuję,(thank you) which I struggled with at the beginning of my trip… As we were going up Wawel hill which is pretty steep, according to an odd Russian tradition, we seemed to overlook the fact there were lots more people except us and we were obviously taking up too much space and that poor couple with a stroller had to say przepraszam (excuse me) for us to make a way for them… We saw some dancing festival taking place outside the Wawel Cathedral. It is a Polish national sanctuary which holds the tombs of Polish kings. We got inside it and it was really spiritual and beautiful. Kraków is also called the city of churches. We were shown the tombs of some of the Polish kings and those tombs looked a bit scary due to human figures laying in rest on top. The guide pointed to the exact place where our president at the time was sitting during the funeral of the President of Poland Lech Kaczyński who along with many more members of the political and cultural elite were tragically killed in a plane crash in Smolensk on the way to some ceremonies to celebrate the Katyan massacre. That event was a subject of speculation and controversy in the media. Whilst in Europe, I had those moments when I totally forgot where I was from and I’m ashamed to admit that remark made me giggle a bit… I didn’t really care about our President at that point even though I was somewhat delighted to see him on TV in Prague a couple of days ago… At the end of our tour we visited the burial place of Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria. The atmosphere in the room was somber and there was physically hard to breathe… I felt it wrong to be taking any pictures in there…
Sadly, that was almost it for us in the last city of our trip… After we were done with a lovely delicious dinner, the sky was clearing up but it was time to say goodbye to what I think was the most tourist-friendly city of our trip… I really felt we were welcome there in a royal style. This city is absolutely well worth a longer visit. There are lots of things to do and see here and so much history to be explored… Dziękuję, Kraków – you were a perfect end to my trip! I promise I will try to be back to enjoy more of your charm and hospitality…

A Tiny Bit of Vienna (Was That All Just a Dream?)

Some three or four hours later we found ourselves in Austria to visit Vienna, the city of music, the city of dream… We were listening to some Mozart on the way as we were about to arrive at our 4-star hotel for the night. Even though it was a Friday night, the streets of the capital were deserted and we didn’t see many people out. Maybe people were escaping the bustle and hustle of the big city somewhere… We checked in to the hotel quite late and found out that wasn’t up to the high standard and accidentally my friend and me unlocked a safe with some drinks and were expecting to be made to pay for it the next morning. Russian people are inherently tempted with what can possibly get them into trouble… We were looking forward to watching some German-speaking TV the way we did in Dresden and all we got was an invitation to tune in to some adult content which we were certainly in the mood for that night… So we hit the sack and unfortunately as my new player didn’t have FM-radio, I was listening to a couple of songs I uploaded and eventually had difficulty getting to sleep as my nose was totally blocked and the night in this romantic city didn’t feel so at all… As I was already asleep at the break of dawn, I heard some commotion in the hallway and some people whom I assumed to be Chinese or Japanese… Why did they have to be so loud? I’d rather have had some Mozart to wake up to… The breakfast, which was absolutely amazing, made up for the night… And luckily for us, we were not charged for unlocking that safe…
It was getting cloudy when we were leaving the hotel and I was getting tired of those weather extremes… I regret to say that the tour of Vienna was the most disappointing tour we’d had on this trip and what it did was detract from the city itself…
… Our guide was really unprofessional and her accent was terrible and even that microphone she was carrying around didn’t help us understand her monotonous speech… She did a terrible job and didn’t deliver at all… In hindsight, I still feel I really missed out on the beauty and romance of Vienna… It is known to be the city of music because it’s home to many greatest names in music but it’s also called the city of dream because it’s a home place of Sigmund Freud who was renowned for this in-depth study into the nature of human dreams… I didn’t get any dreams when I was in bed but my whole experience of Vienna seems like a blurred dream I woke up from even before the best bits started… I was so peeved and disappointed… So now I’ll be trying to piece together what I remember seeing that day which is not an easy thing to do…
We started off at Maria-Theresa Square which was under reconstruction but still looked magnificent and was all I expected a square in Vienna to be on a quiet Saturday morning… In this square there was the building of the Museum of Natural History of Vienna which is one of the iconic views of the city… We saw a bit of Museumsquater from over there too… It was raining so we didn’t get may photography opportunities…
Then I believe we drove through the famous Ringstrasse which took us to us to the attraction which is considered to be off the beaten path and makes for a nice getaway from the imperial Vienna which we hadn’t really experienced yet and weren’t much expecting to thanks to our “lovely” guide…That was the Hundertwasser House. I was really looking forward to seeing this public housing in the central Vienna and somehow knew I would be genuinely astonished by what I was going to see… Quirky and bizarre things which this piece of architecture unarguably is have always seemed to fascinate me. This house was nothing short of bizarre. I loved those multiple inconsistent colorful details of the façade.
Hundertwasser who originally came up with the idea of creating something completely out of this world amidst all the typically Vienna architecture collaborated with some architects to put his crazy ideas into practice. The building now has several dozens of apartments, some offices and private terraces. Another extraordinary thing about it is that it has flowers and trees growing from inside it (by the way, Hundertwasser has a plant growing on top of his burial place in New Zealand). It’s a shame there was no chance to get inside but this place is known to have uneven floors so it would have been a bit of a challenge to take a tour of the building I believe. Hundertwasser said that “an uneven floor is like a divine melody to the feet”. I agree that the whole piece of architecture was against all common architectural sense and to me it looked as if it was going to fall apart just as we were standing there. We made a brief stop at some of the shops in the so-called Hundertwasser Village just across the road and got to see some nice pieces of art and the Hundertwasser memorabilia. I got some stuff featuring some of the popular paintings by Vienna artists and wish I had got a poster with a picture of the Hundertwasser House… I just had no time to make up my mind because we were in a stupid rush again… When we were about to leave, I had to turn back to take one final look at the building and wished I had more time to experience it in the way I should have…
As we were back on the coach, we got some views of the Danube Canal which for the reason unknown to me looked green… There were lots of business centres, banks all around as well…
I believe the next attraction on our way has to be the Hofburg Palace which used to the residence of the famous Habsburg dynasty since the 15th century and now serves as the official residence of the President. I don’t remember much about this place because as I said we couldn’t rely on our guide to give us in-depth knowledge of the places we were visiting… I remember seeing the Sisi Museum. This is what Elizabeth of Austria was called. Along with Mozart, she was featured in many billboards in the city. She looked like a very beautiful lady and we watched a part of a film about her life on our way to Austria. I think her image matched what Vienna was thought to be, beautiful, romantic and intimate…
We also saw multiple horse-drawn carriages riding along the cobbles streets of Vienna and wished we could take one to explore the city as well… It was just so Vienna I think.
The last stop I remember we had was the Stephenplatz with St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom), one of the tallest churches in the world. The view of the church was just breathtaking and an absolute pleasure to see. At this point we didn’t care at all what the guide was going on about and all we did was take it in. It had some poster on it which gave some facts of a staggering number of children dying of hunger every day…
We were given a little time to ourselves and were happy to say goodbye to the guide. So we decided we couldn’t leave without trying some Vienne coffee and took a “Kaffee break”. We chose a coffee shop just across the road from Stephansdom. We were looking for a table and got inside first where one of the waiters or whoever he was gave me a charming smile I can never forget… We ended up getting a table outside and ordered some mélange coffee which was a local specialty. Coffee in Vienna is served with ice-cold water from the Alps which tastes fantastic and you can run it from a tap wherever you are in Vienna. Such a big change from that intoxicated water we have here! We also got some banana split ice-cream. The waiter was friendly and nice. When our order arrived, we were shocked by an enormous amount of the ice-cream. It would have been enough for all three of us, I think. The coffee was served really beautifully and even though I’m not a coffee drinker, I was excited to try it. It actually tasted quite good and the whole experience felt like nothing we can have happen to us back home. I knew there was no way I was going to finish the ice-cream so we all had to leave most of it behind even though it wasn’t something we normally did. The waiter was really professional and didn’t mind us taking the time to figure out how to pay the bill and was nice to have no objections to us paying him with a huge pile of coins…
We headed off to do some souvenir shopping and I had one of those jaw-dropping moments when I saw the price for the Rolex watch! It was staggeringly high and I knew why this spot was a shopping venue for the European nobility back in the day.
We had some other interesting encounter there which I think I need to mention here. As we were taking a stroll of this street lined with luxurious shops and souvenir places, we got approached by a couple of ladies whose looks suggested they were members of some religious group and were on a mission to recruit more people. The funny thing is that they turned out to be our fellow countrymen! Where else in the entire world would I have met Russian people… They heard us speaking Russian and thought we were just the people they were looking for. They asked us something about our religious beliefs and my sister was quite adamant to say we were not interested and it was actually wrong to be asking this kind of questions. This is when the ladies gave in and left us alone. I knew if they hadn’t, my sister would have tried to call the police. I wasn’t happy to meet those ladies because they might be sending out the wrong message about what Russian people are like to people abroad. Instead of trying to do good for themselves, they were wasting their lives away… But well, that wasn’t really any of my business after all but meeting them wasn’t sure the best part of the day…
We got to see the popular Albertina Museum which was just some minutes’ walk away from where we were. I was starting feeling unwell after that coffee I’d had… I guess it was too strong for me and that was my body’s response to it… This sickness I had certainly deterred me from drinking coffee ever again if I’m in Vienna. That day wasn’t just meant to be nice and happy after all… It was embarrassing to walk into public places feeling like this and I was praying to whatever gods up there for me to feel good again. And I eventually did which was a Vienna miracle for me…
I had another blow to my national pride as we were sitting by the Albertina Museum waiting to meet our tour guide. I heard some teenage guys sitting on the bench next to ours say “Russin” (Russians). Words cannot describe how I hated them at that moment. Did they have a problem with us being Russian? I know I might have taken this comment too personally but that did feel like a smack in the face, a label… I wonder what it is we do that makes people from across the world discriminate against us… If I was more fluent in German, I think I would have approached them to ask what they thought was wrong about being Russian… I was fuming at that remark and I think I still am now that I’ve brought it up…
After a meal we had at a café owned by a Russian (I found out there are surprisingly many Russians in Vienna and this is where all this stigma comes from I should think), it was time to leave. Before that, we had to find our way back to Maria-Theresa Square which was said to be just some minutes’ walk away. We had this man in our group who was brilliant at finding his way around so we all followed his lead and relied on his gut instinct. It might have been funny to watch several dozens of people following one man, like a group of school kids out on an excursion. As we were walking, I caught a glimpse of the Mozart Monument in the City Park and was sad I had to leave before the music of the city started playing and resonating with my soul… Later on, I saw the film “Before Sunrise” which I highly recommend which tells a story of two people who meet on a train and eventually fall in love over one single day they spend together in Vienna having insightful conversations and getting to know each other… I had this incredible feeling when I was watching the film and reliving all these views of the city which were lost upon me on my visit… Maybe it wasn’t my time to explore the city which is filled to the brim with culture, romance and music… I’m really looking forward to coming here again and taking another chance with Vienna (no more coffee for me, please)…

Some Towns of the Czech Republic (Gothic Style)

The next day we woke up to nasty chilly weather outside which pretty much set the tone for the day… I decided I’d put on my Cheburashka T-shirt I got in Moscow to brighten it up for me. We were to visit some places outside Prague that day. We were given an option to stay in Prague till the middle of the afternoon but we signed up for this trip. One day wasn’t just enough to experience Prague…
First we were to take a tour of the Sternberk Castle which is located in Český Šternberk which is about 50 km away from Prague. Some Czech musiс was playing and there were some dreary rural landscapes gliding by… The sky was overcast and it certainly didn’t add any charm to our trip. Sternberk Castle was constructed in the middle of the 13th century and is actually one of the best preserved Gothiс castles in central Europe. The whole experience of the day was truly Gothic… It was owned by Zdeslav of Divisov, later called Zdeslav Sternberg, then the property was taken away from him and after that returned till it was nationalized by the Communist government in 1949 and the Sternberk family got it back in 1992. It was actually amazing to find out that one of the descendants of the family agreed to work as a steward and give tours of the castle after the castle was nationalized just to keep in touch with the place. Now this man’s son occupies four rooms on the second floor. The name of the castle roughly translates “a star on the hill” and this is exactly what this castle looks like when you go up the hill towards it… The views around it were just magical, all those endless thick forests and the Sázava river were giving it a touch of Gothic mystery…
The court of the castle provided some scenic views of the hotel just across the road and it looked marvelous from up there. We had a guided tour of the castle by the same lovely girl from yesterday who didn’t stop amazing me by how brilliant her Russian was.
The interior of the castle looked just as the weather outside, dull and grey but it truly felt like stepping back in history to find out about the cultural and historical significance of the place. There were lots of exquisite engravings and paintings on the wall. They charged an extra fee for photography and that’s why I don’t have the pictures as I was afraid we might run out of Czech crowns. It was incredible to be walking around this building to get a better understanding as to who used to live there back in the day. From what I saw I don’t think I’d love to live there, I wasn’t feeling too comfortable in the place and I think the idea of having all this space to myself would be unbelievable. We were amazed to find a fresh bottle of wine standing on one of the tables. That must have been the owner of the castle enjoying himself… That just made me think how all those people owning properties like this are like the rest of us… At the end of our visit we got some souvenirs to take back home and took some pictures against the local forest and as we were driving back to our next place of interest, I came to realize there was nothing else I loved more than the lovely landscapes of the part of Russia I am from.
Sometimes the views seemed a bit like those we have back home but they fail to make your heart and soul smile the way your home landscapes do… I guess there is something in our DNA that keeps us close to where we come from and live…

The atmosphere of the place was as eerie and macabre as it is said to be but to my utter surprise, I didn’t feel physically uncomfortable standing there looking at thousands of bones around me. I actually thought it would be a good idea for my bones to be used in such an aesthetic way after I die so people from across the world could come and see all those beautiful things… I’m not sure if people whose bones are used in the ossuary would think the same way I do and unfortunately, we are never going to find that out… I tend to think it was a good tribute to the dead and instead of rotting in the earth their bones were used to create exquisite decorations and a whole new spiritual experience… Looking at the chandelier at the centre of the hall where all the bones of a human body were used, I was contemplating life and death and how we need to make the most of our lives and make each day count before we become just a pile of bones in those decorations. In this place, death didn’t feel like something to be terrified and mortified about, it was just what any life ultimately ends in… I’m happy that place made me realize that fact of life and I wasn’t emotionally wrecked after visiting this creepy place, I was just ready to move on with my life which I grew to love a bit more that day. And it has to be many and many decades before I am what people come to this place for…





… This abbey cemetery we saw looked different from cemeteries here where death is nothing but a sad ending and, in contrast, there it felt more like a peaceful ending or rather a new beginning… I felt really optimistic about life ahead and this is why I was extra amused to see the sign “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie”. I honestly thought that was something local people came up with and knew I had to remember it… Life is so much about those small things that we do on a daily basis…

The last stop of the day was St. Barbara’s Church (Chrám svaté Barbory) in Kutna Hora which is one of the most famous Gothic churches in central Europe. The whole experience didn’t seem so Gothic now that the sky was clearing up… Just another reason to smile after a pensive visit to the ossuary…
This church took five hundred years to complete. St. Barbara was a patron saint of miners which was the job of many of the town’s residents. The town used to thrive on silver mines. The church was by far the most beautiful piece of architecture I’d seen on my trip. It was just breathtaking and all those trees and flowers around it made it a view to remember forever. I started feeling a bit inappropriate for wearing my Cheburashka T-shirt at the moment… The interior of the church where no fee was charged for photography was just as impressive. There were lots of beautiful engravings there and just like St.Vitus Cathedral in Prague and unlike Russian churches and cathedrals, it wasn’t emotionally oppressing and made everyone welcome to come in and reflect.
Then we were given a brief tour of Kutna Hora and shown a local version of the Charles Bridge in Prague and also got to make some more wishes near the fountain in the Italian court which is now a museum of coin-minting. Kutna Hora is a comfortable town away from the large mysterious Prague but if certainly had some secrets of its own to hide. Our day trip ended with a lovely dinner at one of the local cafes where we stocked up with some cheap becherovka to take back home.
The weather got so much better and it was time to go back to Prague to say a proper goodbye and pick up some people from the group who chose to stay there… I wish we had as well because there was so much more to be seen in Prague but in hindsight I have no regrets because now I know Prague is definitely worth another longer visit and those towns and suburbs like those we visited that day give us in-depth knowledge of the country and the way people live there. I don’t think in Prague I would see people casually getting on with their daily routine, for example, drying the linen or playing cards out on the terrace the way I did in Kutna Hora and again these are those small things that we need to see and experience miles and miles away from home.