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.

Zlata Praha

As we were getting ready to get engrossed in the mystery of Prague which was I believe was less than an hour drive outside Dresden, we gazed at marvelously picturesque views of mountains which seemed really huge. That was not the view you might get to experience in the Alps but it was still pleasant to look at. There was no more German language, which I was determined to brush on back home. Czech has always struck me as confusingly complicated but to me as a teacher of foreign languages it was fascinating to see all those linguistic changes unravel in front of my own eyes.
It was a couple of hours before we arrived in Prague, the mysterious and romantic capital of the Czech Republic. When I saw all those dilapidated buildings and dull streets, I thought my hopes of experiencing the enigmatic and enchanting beauty of Prague were thwarted and I was so wrong to get my expectations way too high and set myself for disappointment. We were driving round and round some really sullen architecture and it felt as though we were taken on a trip on a time-machine and found ourselves in a Soviet city facing lots of economic and social problems… I wasn’t feeling too good because I had caught a cold and even though I tried to soldier on, it seems to be catching up with me. I was getting ready to move on from what I thought was just another disappointment… The hotel we were staying at that night was a big change from that in Dresden and I was making a pretty negative impression of the city… The elevator wasn’t working properly and it turned out we would have to queue up for breakfast till 6 a.m… Was that nice, no! Even though I was feeling the way I was, I was still excited about what tomorrow would bring. It was nice to figure out how to work my new mp3 player I got in Dresden and another exciting thing of the evening was watching our president Putin on my favorite BBC World News. I suddenly felt homesick watching our president on the international TV channel in Prague… That was a perfect international experience I was thrilled about! I phoned my parents for the first time since I was on my trip to let them know we were ok. I think seeing Putin’s face on my TV was one of the reasons why I did so… We tucked in what was left of the food we got back in Dresden which was another international experience of the night and were ready to dream about what we would see the next day.
We had an early start as usual and had a bit of a breakfast in our hotel room. We were staying in a noisy industrial area of the city and it took us a while to get to the Prague railway station where we were to pick up our guide for the next two days. The building was rather dull and dreary and got me wondering again if that was the country’s turbulent past that had such an impact on its present. It seemed like the city had some really dark secrets to hide. Our guide was a lovely vibrant lady of my age and I was astonished by her level of proficiency in Russian. Some seconds later we forgot she wasn’t Russian…
So we were driving down some hill (I got an impression Prague was a bunch of slope hills). It was scorching hot and I was wondering how I was going to get through that day with my cold… But I was determined to give Prague another chance so I didn’t mind the cold as long as this city wasn’t going to leave me disappointed.
The first stop on our long way was the Prague Castle which was some walking distance away. This is a residence place of Bohemian kings and today’s President. First we were to witness the changing of the guards. There was nothing in particular about this procedure but I think it’s a must-see for a tourist because in some way it gets you in touch with the country you’re visiting. We had a good view from where we were standing so we even filmed some bits. Then we walked into the gate and saw a really beautiful fountain and architecture. The Prague Castle is one of the largest ancient castles in Europe and I wasn’t aware of that till some point. I wished I had done more research on Prague. The castle complex which is located in the area called Hradčany (Castle District) houses St.Vitus Cathedral which we will be touring later and a number of museums. It’s a shame we didn’t bump into the President taking a walk the way some other group of tourists did, according to our tour guide who never stopped to crack up jokes.
The next stop was St. Vitus Cathedral which was by far one of the most breathtaking pieces of architecture I’d seen on my trip. It is a Roman Catholic Church in Gothic style. There was something purely magical about this cathedral. The interior was just equally astonishing. And then we heard a choir of some Chinese teenagers who as our tour guide said were on tour of the world’s different cathedrals sing. I was incredibly moved by that spiritual song and that genuinely made me want to cry even though I’m no way religious. The acoustics was just splendid and their singing seemed to have struck a chord in my heart and soul. That was purely magnificent… Then we got outside to take in the beauty of the cathedral.
We were continuing walking the cobblestone streets of Prague and shown some other places when we stopped at a vineyard which provided panoramic views of the city which was starting to live up to my expectations. All those endless roofs were there in front of our eyes and we had some nice picture opportunities.
We took some pictures of the lovely Toy Museum which had an interesting statue outside it. That was a statue of a naked teenage boy which as the tour guide said Russian tourists call a pioneer… It was considered good luck to rub a part of his body which looked pretty indicative of how desperate tourists were for good luck… I thought I’d rather not do that because for some reason it felt inappropriate especially for a teacher…
We were now in Mala Strana (the Lesser Town) where we were shown the narrowest streets of the city which I believe not everyone in our group would be able to walk. When we saw some policemen in the street, the tour guide used a Russian slang word menty and cracked us all up because the Russian police is notorious for being not the one to trust… We were guided to the Franz Kafka Museum. This writer is much acclaimed and considered one of the most prominent one of the 20th century. Unfortunately, I’ve never read any of his works but I know they are said to be quite disturbing to the mind. I think if we had visited his museum, we would have got a better understanding into his personality and literary work. Outside the museum there was one of the most amusing fountains I’d ever seen in my entire life (and I said I had a fountain fetish). That was a fountain of the pissing men whose gentleman parts were rotating so it looked as if they were urinating on the fountain which is shaped like the Czech Republic. It felt a bit inappropriate again to come close for a better view… This seems a way to honor Kafka’s quirkiness and anguish and for some odd reason, I loved that piece of architecture because that was definitely not what I was expecting to see in Prague.
We walked past some lovely riverside restaurants which look very inviting and it would have been nice to stop by for a few beers but of course we had no time for that…
We were about to go up which was one of the highlights of our tour of Prague. That was Charles Bridge (Karlův most). It looked spectacular even from down there we were standing and I recognized it at once. It wasn’t packed with tourists but it didn’t feel too busy at this time of the day. The sun was beating down and it wasn’t a midday yet… You can’t just miss that sight when you’re in Prague because it is the pedestrian connection between the Prague Castle and Old Town where we will be stopping by later on. The bridge offered some magnificent views of the Vltava, the largest river of the Сzech Republic, and of the Prague skyline. I was loving the city at the moment and the feeling of love was really infiltrating the air as while I was posing for some pictures and just soaking up the atmosphere, I was thinking that would be a perfect place to be walking hand in hand with that special someone… Charles Bridge was decorated with an alley of dozens of statues that looked absolutely out of this world against the clear blue sky. We were making wishes on several occasions and one of them was definitely a return visit to Prague I was totally changing my mind about. There were also some street artists selling some art and I wish I had had my portrait done but it’s obvious why I didn’t after all…


… I could spend ages taking in the scenic views of the Vltava and keep indulging in that pensive mood I was in but it was time to the last place of interest for the time being which was Old Town Hall and Astronomical Clock. That was when I first experienced the hustle and bustle of the city because the square was getting busier and busier with lots of people speaking a great variety of languages coming and going. We got to listen to the chime of the clock but unfortunately I wasn’t aware of the importance and meaning of the clock up until recently… But there was nothing extraordinary about what we witnessed. But that was definitely another authentic Prague experience we will treasure in our memory for years to come…
The girls sat down on the ground to rest their feet just opposite the Astronomical Clock. I was proper tired but remained standing and did some people watching. I felt like a tiny little part of a huge crowd of tourists. That was when it hit me I was in one of the most favorite travel destinations in Europe.
A short while later we went on a boat trip of the Vltava and saw some more magnificent sights on our way to the harbor, for example, the Týn Church, the fancy Paris Street… I love boat trips, I’ve always felt I had a special connection with water… That was an indulgent experience not just for my soul and eyes but for my stomach as well… I hate to get on the subject of food in the story of my trip but it was just amazing! Every dish was just spot-on and I grew to love the Czech cuisine. Our dinner started out with a bit of becherovka which is a herbal liquor and a traditional national drink. Then we tucked in an enormous amount of chicken, pork which was just what we needed after a long day tour of Prague. It was nice and relaxing to be watching the iconic views going by… That was absolutely magical and it felt like I was in my element down there in this boat. We even got stuck in traffic and had to wait for other boats to pass through! The boat trip came to end before we knew it and we had some time to ourselves. I wasn’t planning on anything in particular so it was pretty confusing to realize I was in such a magical magnificent city but didn’t really have any idea where to spend a couple of hours…

We had a bit of a shopping spree and did some souvenir shopping. I was majorly surprised to find out that a lot of sales assistants in the market spoke good Russian. We were about to buy some traditional Czech waffles and I asked a sales assistant if I could try them and she sounded a bit offended when she said she spoke Russian. I was a bit embarrassed that my degree in English was too much in the face. It seemed for a while we were back home because we heard lots of people speak Russian. Czech souvenirs were the most fascinating ones I’d come across throughout the entire trip. It was nice we took some Czech things back home…
We had some more time to kill and finally stopped by for a few beers which were surprisingly cheap. It’d be a crime to leave without shooting a few I think. As I was sitting there people watching, I think I’d seen so many different faces that I haven’t seen in my entire life and was exhilarated to be one of those faces in the streets of Prague which seemed to have let me in some of its secrets… As we were taking a stroll, we saw some man dressed in a white sheet looking absolutely motionless. As we were walking past him, I turned my head to get a better look and suddenly he came alive to give me a courteous bow and wave me a kiss. That certainly put a smile on my face and made me sad such gentlemen didn’t occur often back home…
We did some food shopping and spent the rest of the time relaxing our feet and letting the world go by in Wenceslas Square in the New Town which was a venue for major historic events in the history of the country. It felt like home after a couple of hours we spent here. My sister was enjoying some more beer and at that point I thought was bringing a huge disgrace to the Russian nation… My friend was having a good time feeding local doves and some more people seemed to join her too.
Before the end of that long day in Prague, we were scheduled to visit one of Prague’s Black Light Theatres. We were to watch the Wow show which involved the performers using light techniques to create visual illusions to tell some stories of everyday life. That one we saw was of a man facing his fears. We were seated in the front row and I swear never in my life had I been in a room with people from so many different countries. The whole message of the show didn’t quite come across to us at that point but it was definitely nothing what we’d seen before as we felt water drops falling from the ceiling, saw some creepy spiders popping up out of the blue. The show was interactive and my sister even got asked to blow some bubbles… We were joking it was the beer that got her involved in the show in the first place… We were really moved and perplexed by what we saw…
The last event of the day was a visit to Křižík fountain, a one-off water show where dance performances, music and water are synchronized together. That night Black Swan by Tchaikovsky was staged. My sister detests opera so she felt a bit disappointed. The darkness was falling and that was a truly magic time to spend in one of the most magical cities of the world… The place seemed to be in the middle of nowhere and it was nice our coach took us there, otherwise we would have definitely lost our way. I was excited to see Black Swan and happened to see it played in our local theatre just weeks before the trip. As the music started playing, I felt butterflies in my stomach! The choreography and music was just beyond incredible and I genuinely enjoyed every second of the show even when it started raining and we had to look for a place to hide because the last thing I wanted is to have my cold get even worse… Standing there in the rain watching the beauty unravel was purely romantic and of course I wanted someone to share this moment with me… Just as I did in Dresden, I felt I got in touch with the kind of beauty that is often blurred in the everyday drudgery and was elated by the experience…
It was time we went back to our hotel to spend one more night in the city which started growing on me through the course of one single day. I went from being utterly disappointed to being utterly amazed and enchanted… I pretty much experienced every emotion in the book that day… First impressions can be so painfully wrong and can really affect our judgment. I’m happy I wasn’t meant to be disappointed by this city that seemed to have shared so much with me that day that I felt absolutely shattered by the time we got back to the hotel. I was ready to admit Prague was “a dear little mother whose claws never let go” as Franz Kafka said in one of his letters to his father…
The next day was going to be a new day…

Elbflorenz (Dresden)

They say that life is not the breaths you take but the moments that take your breath away. I believe I had one of those moments when we arrived in Dresden which was about 3 hours’ drive away from Berlin. It was almost midnight and it looked as though we had lost our way because we seemed to be driving around the same old buildings that looked like hospitals or some other social institutions. That was definitely not the kind of Dresden I’d been expecting to see. And then out of the darkness of the night that was setting in and gloominess of impersonal buildings popped up a view that was definitely a breath-taker for me. That was absolutely extraordinary to see an iconic view of Dresden which I previously saw in pictures by night. I felt tears coming to my eyes and I think that particular view instantly got me fall in love with what I was to see the next day. Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture but this is pretty much what it was like 152_163_original
As I said, Dresden looked very calm and serene and I don’t think we saw a single person walking the streets as we were driving to the hotel where we were staying for the night. It was a big change from Berlin which to me now seemed more and more vibrant and full of life.
Our hotel looked quite nice and as the night before, we couldn’t wait to get into bed and get a good night’s sleep and let all the impressions of the day sink in. Our initial reaction when we walked into our room was nothing but “Wow!”. Dresden is often referred to one of the world’s cultural landmarks and even our room in what I guess was an ordinary hotel looked like a little work of art with nice furniture, pictures and curtains to match. That was unbelievably beautiful and we immediately went on tour of the rest of our room and we definitely loved what we saw. I found a Bible lying in the wardrobe and for a moment I felt uncomfortable thinking that some insanely religious people might have been staying in this room before but then I thought I didn’t mind that as long as I was in this lovely room. I was getting ready for bed when I found out that my mp3 player was missing…. I went through my bag over and over again and it was nowhere to be found… I was getting panicky and then I realized I must have left it under the pillow in Slubice the night before when I was listening to some radio before bed… I really hated myself for leaving it behind in Poland… That was so precious to me because even though it was just a piece of metal or something, that had been with me for a good couple of years and eventually came to be a tiny part of me because I love listening to music. Well, that was it… A tiny part of me was left behind in Poland and I was wondering if it was already found by someone under that pillow… I was thinking how I proved with my own example that Russians were way too careless and carefree when they are on holiday. This player would definitely get me through long bus trips between the cities and now that it was gone forever, I knew they were going to be really boring and I couldn’t make a point of listening to foreign radio stations late at night before bed. I felt really sad and was somewhat ashamed of telling my sister and friend because I knew they would probably make fun of me because I thought I was the only person out of the entire group who had their personal things lost on the first night at a hotel. Well, after a shower I was sitting there in a dim lit hotel room and browsing some of the brochures that were kindly left on the desk for us and actually felt German and my university degree seemed to come in handy. When I was already in my comfy bed, I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking how stupid it was of me to have left that mp3 player under the pillow… This is what I usually did back at home but I had to remember that those hotel rooms weren’t my home after all. And then I thought since there was probably nothing I could do to get my player back, I might get a new and a better one (that one was rather old) here in Germany where I thought I could get a good value for money. So what if this tiny part of me was to be replaced by a new German one? I loved this idea…
After what was an absolutely delicious and substantial breakfast, we set off for a tour of the historical centre of Dresden. Our tour started in Theaterplatz (Theatre Square) that featured some of the city’s key sights. I knew about the bombing raid of 1945 which killed about 25 thousands of Dresdeners and saw lots of beautiful and imposing buildings of the city destroyed to ashes. Just standing there taking in the square which looked quite small but very impressive made me contemplate the fragility of beauty and how it can be ruined and destroyed within the space of hours…. It was unbelievable how all those explosives were falling from this purely blue sky to cause unprecedented damage to the cultural heritage of the city and to leave thousands of lives scarred forever… But the way the city centre was painstakingly restored to its former glory proves that even when beauty is monstrously destroyed, it can still be restored to something new and amazing if enough effort and dedication is put into it… There is no way you can piece the broken glass together but what we saw there in that square right in front of our own eyes proved that even if the scars and wounds are still there, there is always a fresh beginning and a new lease of life for those who keep faith. Even though it took decades to get some of the major buildings restored from the smallest fragments, it finally happened and some of the former beauty survived and it certainly was a privilege to see the city so lovely and alive…
Dresden Castle, which was one of the oldest buildings in the city, was on our left and looked so enigmatically beautiful.
Semperoper, a concert hall, looked just amazing. SAM_1813
Zwinger, a breathtaking palace complex, was on our right and we had a chance to see its courtyards later on. Those three buildings seemed to dominate the square. It was really fascinating to be listening to our tour guide who spoke a very nice Russian even though she looked and behaved so German. She seemed to love her city a lot and happy to share some of its history with us.
We were shown the Procession of Princes (Fürstenzug) which was a 102-m long mural which showed the rulers of Saxony in chronological order. That was made of the famous Meisen porcelain… I wish I could get a porcelain item but I knew I wouldn’t probably be able to afford it… But Dresden is big on porcelain and that’s a fact. I wish we could have more time to take a closer look at the wall and learn more about the history of the city we were visiting…
But we had to move further on along the narrow streets of the city centre… There were again almost no one here except us and that certainly made our visit feel even more magical… Then we got to see the building which I had only heard and read about for my German exams… That was Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche), an astonishing piece of architecture which again dominated the city’s skyline after it was completely restored several years ago. That was absolutely breathtaking and I never had any idea how magnificent it was!
We took a walk of some more of the area and saw some fancy hotels in one of which if I remember correctly Barack Obama was staying… We also noticed some Soviet-era pictures on some buildings and that was a reminder for us of where we came from…
As the tour guide continued her story, we wandered into the courtyard of Zwinger which again made us feel as if we were royalty taking a leisurely stroll of the lovely garden… The entire area looked so green and Dresden is said to be one of the greenest cities of Europe and I guess this was not by chance I was wearing green that day so that I looked really nice in the setting. All those fountains (I have a passion for those) and pavillions made it all just a brilliant experience and Europe was feeling almost like home to me… That was all so refined but in no way pompous and that certainly appealed to me.
At the end of our excursion we were to visit the Old Masters’ Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister) featuring one of the world’s most acclaimed paintings “Sistine Madonna” by Raphael which celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2012. This is why there were pictures of her everywhere we went. The gallery was in Semperoper which was a part of the State Art Collection (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) that included eleven more museums which we certainly weren’t lucky to visit that day.
On our way to Dresden, we were told by the guide tour to look into Madonna’s eyes because these are the eyes that are said to haunt you forever once you look into them. So I was really looking forward to experiencing the painting first-hand. Even though I’m not an art enthusiast, I was so excited to be visiting one of the world’s most significant collection of art and seeing some of the paintings I previously saw in pictures come alive… I know some people might find art tedious and boring and think it has nothing to do with the lives that ordinary people are living, I, for one, think we need art in our lives just the way our body needs energy to become stronger and more resilient. Art can fuel our souls and like a remedy makes both emotional and physical wounds heal… And it doesn’t matter if most of us don’t really have the appreciation of art and are totally confused and perplexed by those works of art and genuinely have no idea what the fuss is all about… We may come to understand what seemed pointless at some point… What we need to do is open our eyes to beautiful things and let them change the way we are… Some of the pictures we saw were extraordinarily beautiful and impressive and I could feel beauty and art walk into my life and soul… “Sleeping Venus” by Giorgione, “The Tribute Money” by Titian, “Chocolate Girl” by Jean-Etienne Liotard (I have a magnet of it), “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” by Johannes Vermeer…, etc. That must have been enough to blow the mind of an art enthusiast away… It felt as if we and all the people that were there to enjoy (or at least trying to understand) the art were one big eye… I don’t even know why I should bring that up but I remember seeing a teenage gay couple taking a tour of the gallery too… I think the fact that amongst all this exquisite beauty me and I believe some more people from our group happened to notice them and admittedly got a bit disgusted at the view (even though I’m not homophobic) suggests how way behind the rest of the developed world we are… I should think that wasn’t by chance that I saw them at that place… We were close to the highlight of our visit which was Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”. That was a massive painting and crowds of people were standing looking at it. To be perfectly honest, as much as I persevered in looking into her eyes, I can’t say I was astonished or felt her look back at me which I expected would have happened if there was something I saw in those troubled eyes… I didn’t know it before the guide told us that they were troubled at all… She provided some commentary which certainly did help me to get a better understanding of what the idea behind the painting was… That had a distinct religious message and which might have been what put me off. But I was happy I was given a chance to lay my eyes on the real Madonna and get exposed to art in a way that was absolutely new and magical to me.
When the tour of the gallery was over, we could stay there for s bit longer and take a closer look at the collection which was structured using different colours of the walls. The beauty of art was just a glance away from us and that felt surreal… That was really educational and for the time I spent in there I felt a better or at least a more intellectual person who chose not to be ignorant…. The whole collection was not as large as we expected and we tried to take a moment to look at each of the paintings which might have been our way of showing our appreciation of what was indisputably amazing. It was a bit confusing to see the cherubs from “Sistine Madonna” (those two whose figures are distinctly seen in the painting) enjoy a glory of their own and were featured in bottles of champagne, magnets, ash trays… It made me assume people might not take this piece of painting seriously despite all those glowing reviews it got… Anyway, it was something I really failed to understand…
It was time for us to leave the gallery which was truly wonderful. We were now on a mission to get that missing part of me, i.e. a new mp3 player…
I knew this might be a problem as my German wasn’t up to a high standard which I suspected would be required in purchasing a technical device… How on earth would I be explaining what kind of a player I was looking for? I felt I wasn’t ready to rise up to the challenge. That must have been the fact that I had a degree in German which as surprising and strange as it may seem, made me feel so insecure. But we were definitely looking forward to checking out Altmarkt which was one of the biggest shopping venues of the city. I think that wasn’t too long before I found what I thought was perfect for me in terms of the price and technical features but I knew there were certain things I needed to get more details on and I walked up to a shop assistant hoping she spoke English. I’m ashamed to admit that was a bit scary to go out there and do what I’ve been learning to do for years and years. At that moment I had a feeling there was no language in the world I was fluent in and I knew I would be a disaster. I asked the shop assistant if I could take a closer look at the player and all I heard her say was “Ich verstehe Englisch nicht” (I don’t understand English). It was so embarrassing! Looking back, I realize I could have tried to speak German with her and might have been a success but I think I was caught up in the moment and had my mind go blank… Then my friend who also has a degree in German made an attempt to talk to another shop assistant because now my sister decided she needed to buy something. We couldn’t believe we were so terrible! We couldn’t understand a word he was saying! We love to believe that was his accent that prevented us from understanding him. For a moment I felt I was English and no one around me understoood my tongue… Overwhelmed with the sense of guilt and shame, we made our way to the check-out counter and thought this is where we should put it to end and rely on the quality of German products and purchase them without „ausprobieren“ (testing) them. If only we had thought of this word before a woman at the check-out counter said it… We understood everything she was saying and that made us feel a little better about ourselves… We still had a long way to go when it came to German… A visit to the shop which taught us to face our fears was a perfect motivation to improve our knowledge… And of course I got a new mp3 player which I’m still really happy about. We spent some more time just wandering the shopping center which looked pretty much like those we have back home except it didn’t feel too crowded and you didn’t get people giving you weird looks for no reason the way they do in Russia.
All we had time for was a meal… And we felt we needed it badly at that point… We were hoping to get to try some of German specialties such as Bratwurst (fry sausage), Currywurst (a roasted pork sausage) and of course beer which we didn’t get to try the day before in Berlin. We were disappointed not to find anything but some traditional food that we could eat back home. There was a stall which seemed to have some German food on sale but it didn’t look trustworthy. Now we regret not having bought something from it because I don’t think we could have got a food poisoning in the centre of Dresden. I think that was just our Russian thinking taking over us. So we ended up getting some pasta and beer which were just delicious! What we noticed about restaurants and cafes in Germany is that a waiter doesn’t not go back to get the bill but they wait for you to pay it straght away … First we couldn’t understand why she didn’t leave after she brought the bill and thought there was something wrong with us that made us look not trustworthy… Only later did we find out why….
We had some little more time in Dresden. We got back from where we started. I was sitting there on the stairs holding on to a bag with my new mp3 player looking at Dresden Castle, Semperoper, Zwinger and that incredibly blue sky and was wishing for nothing like what Dresden had to go through back in 1945 to happen to it ever again. Will this beauty be able to stand another test? Now that I’ve seen it, I felt responsible and really cared about what was right in front of my eyes… Germany was the country I’d love to spend more time in. I couldn’t believe that was all going to end there and a view of Dresden castle against the blue sky and that iconic view of Dresden by night would be all I have left of Dresden… Well, I shouldn’t forget a new mp3 player of course… Everytime I turn it on, I feel the memory of this city revoke in my mind.
I’ve made so many beautiful memories in Germany and surprisingly got to love German just for the fact for those two days I’d been walking the streets which were injected with German. I also learnt to be more optimistic and know that if something goes missing, you can find a way to replace it and if there’s that accent you don’t understand, there will be one which will be so much easier to understand.

A Bit of Royal Beauty (Potsdam)

Here is a short story of our brief visit to Potsdam. It is a town just about 20 km outside Berlin. It is easily accessible by bus or train. I wasn’t sure if that was a right decision to go as we didn’t have much time on our hands in Berlin as it was and this would make just a couple more hours for us in Berlin after we came back from Potsdam and this would be it for us in Berlin. But there were no regrets as Potsdam gave us a chance to feel like a bunch of Berliners looking to escape the bustle and hustle of the city for a couple of hours as it was a perfect place to get away indeed. Our guide said a visit to Potsdam would make our stay in Berlin so much more worthwhile.
As we were driving to Potsdam, which took us some forty minutes, I started taking a kip. The views we had from the window didn’t seem too appealing and I needed some time to let the Berlin impressions sink in. The first views of Potsdam made it seem like a really nice and quiet place and made a big difference from Berlin which, compared to that town, then struck me as a vibrant and hustling city. It seemed also like a perfect place to live as living in a big city you might feel that all the tension and stress become too much but, in contrast, living in a small place like this you might get bored, so whenever you want a day or a night out, you know a big city and all the fun and entertainment it has to offer are just around the corner. So Potsdamers seem to have the best of both worlds. As we drove further into the town, there were fewer and fewer cyclists and more tourists who seem to come from different parts of the world. Everything looked more like a fairytale land and we were submerging into depths of incredible green.
Our first stop was Sanssouci. It was a summer residence built during the reign of Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Grosse). I made a brief reference to this person in the part describing our stay in Berlin. He had a tremendous impact on Prussia where he was the King and the whole of Germany as we know it to be now. The idea behind this palace and the park surrounding it was to make it a private solitary place rather than a place to show off aristocratic extravagance and pomp. Sanssouci translates from French as “without care”, “carefree”.
Frederick the Great disliked the German language for its rather confusing and complex syntax so this might be the reason why he chose to name this place in French that he seemed to be passionate about. We were standing there near the garden façade of this rather small and plain palace the roof of which read “Sanc, Souci.” For an instant, I felt like a royalty taking a leisurely stroll along the park and enjoying the sizzling sunshine. SAM_7138
That also felt a bit surreal as if we were on set making a movie about royal families. That made us all look a bit inappropriate and out of place as our outfits were most sure not up to the royal standards. Anyway, I tried not to think too much and enjoy the view that was marvelous. This part of the palace that was standing on a hill that overlooked a stunningly beautiful terraced garden with a speсtacular fountain in the centre of it. They call this place a German rival of Versailles and as I was marveling the beauty of the place, I heard someone in our group say Sanssouci was unrivalled by the latter, which made me even more proud to be here.
We were shown a place where Frederick was buried. His resting place was in the terrace of the vineyard where some of his favorite dogs are buried as well. He was known to be a huge animal lover. He wasn’t buried here until the early 1990s when Germany was reunited and finally the funeral took place after the nightfall just according to the last will of the king. Frederick was also famous for improving the state of the Prussian economy that suffered a significant damage during the Seven Years’ War and introducing some new crops like potato. There were some potatoes lying on his tomb, which was brought to our attention by the guide. That caused me to giggle a bit as I was ambivalent about potatoes. I love cooking and eating them but planting them is a bit of a nightmare for a person like myself who obviously is not known to have green fingers. This burial palace looks really sentimental and made me wonder how on earth a king would want to have his dogs buried next to him. I wasn’t known to be a dog lover either. But this dedication to pets melted my heart away.
I couldn’t wait to make my way down 120 steps to the garden. The garden was absolutely breathtaking and perfectly landscaped. We were lucky to come here in the summertime to see the garden in its blooming splendor. I was blown away by this so-called “Frederician Rococo” and embrace the light-heartedness and serenity of the place. The incredibly green garden seemed to dominate the view making the palace tiny and small. It epitomized the romantic ideal of harmony between man and nature. All those well-maintained flower beds and lawns now made it seem like a paradise and a perfect place to get away and mellow out. I should think some people were tempted to take one of the flowers back home with them as a reminder of our trip but I don’t think anyone would dare to.



We took a short stroll along the park and saw people sunbathing and enjoying a lovely summer day. All the flowers were said to be the same as back when Frederick came here and accepted his privileged guests, like Voltier with whom he was known to have an intimate friendship with, to name a few. The whole area stretches miles and miles away but since we were pressed for time as usual, we got to see only some parts of it.
The next stop on our magically green way was the Chinese House. That was a gild decorative house also used for social events. It took the longest to build due to the Seven Years’ War. It was fairytale-like as well. I wish we could stop for a lovely cup of tea here but we had to make our way further. We also saw a gazebo which was a sort of a pavilion structure which was both practical and ornamental and was again a brilliant combination of art and nature.


We got back to our bus to make our way to the Russian colony of Alexandrowka, which was originally a residence for a group of Russian emigrants. Actually, the only thing I knew about Potsdam prior to my trip there was that was the location of the Potsdam Conference with the leaders of the Soviet Union, United Kingdom and the United States meeting there to discuss what a post-war world would be like. Being in that spot and location was like taking a trip in a time-machine. That was our second Russian experience in Germany. Cecilienhof was the name of the palace where this conference took place. It now houses a museum and a hotel. We got in to get some souvenirs. Some of them were wonderful mirrors, fans. There was also some Potsdam conference memorabilia featuring pictures of Stalin, which was a bit creepy and made it feel like his watchful eye was following us even miles and miles away from home. I got my lovely cuddly Berlin bear there as I feared I might not have time to back in Berlin. I also had a chance to say a few words in German and I loved how the shop assistant smiled at me when I said “Vielen Dank” (Thanks a lot). Me speaking a bit of German seemed to come as a surprise to her. I was enjoying my German experience. When we got out, we found that the rest of our group and the guide were already gone. We were standing by the red star outside the palace waiting for them to show up but then we decided we would have to find our way around if we didn’t want to get lost. It would be embarrassing to have the rest of the group waiting on us in the coach. So, to add more thrill to our trip, we had to take a jog to where the coach was parked. If only we knew our way around! I think about nine people having exactly no idea where they were running to in a foreign country where people were taking leisurely strolls made a pathetic view. But anyway, totally out of breath, we made it to our coach, we found out that the rest of the group were not back from the walking tour. We were breathless but chuffed to make it on time. Now we were waiting for the rest of the group and then it was time to say goodbye to the lovely Potsdam. It could well make for a day trip and again we made a wish we would be back here one day to bask in the sun and enjoy the green beauty of art and nature coming together. That felt like a light-hearted romance that we knew wouldn’t last long. We were jealous of all those locals riding their bikes and had to go back to Berlin listening to our guide telling us about a dire financial situation in Germany and still secretly wishing we lived here. The next stop was Dresden.

Ich bin ein Berliner (Part 3)

I had that incredibly breathtaking moment. I had tears coming to my eyes when we were driving past Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). It was stunningly beautiful! I was thrilled to get off the bus and take a closer look at this phenomenal piece of architecture.
For a moment after I saw double-decker buses, I thought I was in London. Berlin is certainly one of the major tourist spots in Europe but it didn’t feel like it was too crowded, which made my stay there so enjoyable and liberating. First we went on a short tour of Hackesche Hofe which is a fancy courtyard complex with a lovely tranquil atmosphere. It looked so classy and European. I was picturing people coming here for a cup of coffee to take in the atmosphere of the place. There were lots and lots of shops but we were pressed for time as always.
Our next quick stop was Deutsches Historisches Museum (The German Historical Museum). It was a shame we didn’t get a chance to visit any of the exhibitions but the hall of the museum was large and beautiful. We got our first souvenirs there as we were waiting on the rest of the group. To my surprise, I felt comfortable speaking a bit of German with a sales assistant. I was happy to embrace this truly European country.
I loved the way people passing by looked like. They had a nice fashion sense. We were having a walk along the bank of Spree when we approached the Berlin cathedral which survived the destruction of WWII. It was truly phenomenal! It bore resemblance to Isakiev’s cathedral in St. Petersburg which is one of the cities in Russia that are definitely worth a visit. But I haven’t been there yet. The cathedral looked spectacular and it was another moment when I wished the time had stopped. There were amazing picture opportunities as well.

Berlin is home to a great number of museums. Berlin’s Museuminsel (Museum Island) is a one-off collection of amazing museums. Visiting them is a huge treat to art enthusiasts. Actually, there is something for everyone in this city. This is where we were at the moment. We took some pictures of Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), Altes Museum (Old Museum), the Bode Museum, the Pergamon Museum. Being in this completely different part of the city made my heart glow. Before we headed off to Potsdam, we had these two iconic landmarks of Berlin to visit.
We also took a short walk along Unter den Linden and stopped at Humboldt University where we saw lots of books on sale at 3 Euro each. I was tempted to buy one but there was no time to decide so I ended up buying none. But it was an honor to be there as Humboldt made a great contribution to linguistics as we know it now.
The first defining sight of Berlin is the Reichstag building. This is where Soviet soldiers flew our flag in May 1945. That was a massive imposing building with lots of history. The view made me more keen and enthusiastic about improving my German, I was on a high as if I had just seen Big Ben in London. It was funny that I got to see the Reichstag (German was minor) but I’ve never got to see Big Ben yet. That was another moment to capture and remember. There was no other way for me rather than to capture the view with my mind as my camera had died by the time we got there. The next time I’m in Berlin I know the first thing I will do is to my book a visit to the dome to see the German parliament at work.
We were short of time and had about ten minutes to go take a quick look at Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) which was just across the park. We were scared we might get lost as there was no time to lose and decided to ask someone for directions. My friend was brave enough to speak up but ironically, this man we addressed turned out to be American and didn’t understand any German. He started talking in English and for an instant it felt as if neither me nor my friend had a degree in English as our minds went totally blank as we didn’t know what the English for Brandenburger Tor was. But he was faster to understand us and we finally made our way to what to many people was actually Berlin. The place was touristy but it didn’t feel too crowded. The gate was pretty small and not quite what I pictured but I had to struggle taking a picture of it. Unfortunately, taking a couple of pictures is all we had time for as we were to meet our group to head off to Potsdam. Later last year as I saw my favourite band perform at the Brandenbur Gate on New’s Year I was proud I have been there and was sure to say that a visit there was the highlight of my year.
As we were leaving for Potsdam, we caught a glimpse of the imposing building of the Russian embassy, Tiergarten (they say it is the equivalent of Hyde Park in London), Sigesaule (Victory Column)…
After we came back from Potsdam (which is going to be a different story), we had a couple more hours to spend in Berlin. We had a typical German meal at Kurfurstendamm which is one of the most famous shopping venues in the city. As we were through, we finally had some time to ourselves. It would be a crime not to go on a bit of a shopping spree and enjoy the ultimate shopping experience Berlin style. We also did some souvenir shopping but I already had my cuddly bear which I got in Potsdam as I feared I would have no time for that when we get back. I was loving the vibe, the people and didn’t want to say goodbye. We had some more time to take some more pictures as we approached the Zoo. As I was posing, I had some man shouting out something to me out of his car… I wish my German was better because I will never know what it was… I hope it wasn’t something inappropriate after all… We also had a quick chat with some of the Zoo staff as my friend was eager to have a picture taken with. She said she couldn’t leave without taking a piсture of a German but this man was obviously Turkish but never mind…



Berlin is such a complex and controversial city which lives a life of its own. I think this king named Friedrich der Grosse (Frederick the Great) whose resting place we visited in Potsdam really described Berlin as we know it now. He had a huge love for art and romance but later in life emerged as a great warrior. I believe that these two opposites describe Berlin and all people no matter where we are in the world. As I was leaving, I wanted to say what U.S. President John F. Kennedy famously said as he came here on a visit in 1963 (even though it was meant as a protest against the Soviet Union policy). He said “All — All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (I am a Berliner). I felt free and happy and wanted to scream out loud (in Berlin you are free to do whatever you please) “Ich bin ein Berliner”. The next stop was Dresden.

Ich bin ein Berliner (Part 2)

As we were driving further into East Berlin, I was being amazed by the tranquility of this part of Berlin that used to be socialistic back in the day. As tranquil and serene as it was, with a few people enjoying a brisk morning run or a leisurely ride on a bicycle (which made my friend incredibly jealous of Berliners having such a lovely environment-friendly means of transport), I could feel something socialistic linger in the air (when you were born in the USSR, you know a socialistic thing when you see it). I was under the impression that this part of Berlin was a thriving construction site, with buildings being demolished and new ones emerging at an increasingly rapid pace. It felt as if Berliners were making a mammoth effort to move on from its horrific past when this gorgeous city was oppressively divided into two parts by a formidable barrier that we were to see later on our trip.

Another wonderful piece of architecture came to my attention as we were driving past the Eisenbrücke. That was a memorial of the Molecule Man that commemorates the reunification of Berlin’s two parts. It was a 30-m aluminium statue which features triangulated men facing each other with hands joined in the middle. Only a closer observation reveals that there are actually three men because when you’re looking at it a longer way off, it seems like there are only two. Russian tourists have a running joke of calling this monument “A Party for Three”. This was one of the moments when quirkiness and ingenuity of Berlin struck me as the idea behind that monument was that this tiny molecules or holes, as the architect who designed the monument put it, represented people coming together to create unique things.
People in East Berlin seemed friendly and cheerful. As we stopped at the lights, we effortlessly caught the eye of some construction workers who seemed to be enjoying a break from work. When they saw me and my friend, they raised a bottle of lovely German beer to us. I was a bit embarrassed by this gesture but that made surely my Berlin experience more authentic and memorable.
It didn’t seem long before this array of ruins and newly designed high-rise buildings led us into the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall). This is another must-visit in Berlin. It didn’t look as I had expected it would. I thought this would be a massive concrete wall that would convey the scale of pain suffered by Berliners as this structure emerged in 1961and tore families and loved ones apart. In a documentary I saw on Berlin I heard countless heart-wrenching stories of people dealing with the oppression and pain caused by this horrendous division. What was a poignant and lasting reminder of Berlin’s dark past was a thin wall (it seemed just as high as the one I see out of my window back home). We saw the section along the river Spree opposite the O2 arena (this was where I first met a lovely cuddly symbol of Berlin – a bear). Actually, two similarly pronounced words – beer and bear – sum up Berlin. I enjoyed all the pieces of art but to me they were looked as if they were inspired by tremendous pain felt by people coming here from around the world. Later, we came across chunks of this wall on sale in many souvenir shops but I couldn’t quite believe those were real ones. We were so excited by these quirky pieces of art that we were astonished to find out it wasn’t against the law to write our names on it, which we sure did. I was sad to hear about the plans to take this wall down. It just didn’t seem right to demolish what came to signify a huge part of Berlin’s history and was there for almost thirty years. I also had plans to come back here again to see if our names were still there.

Our autographs on the Berlin Wall
We made our way further into what was one of the main hubs of East Berlin. That was Alexanderplatz. Here we saw a brick building of Red City Hall (Rotes Rathaus), the Neptune fountain and the Ferhsehturm (TV tower) which was so massive that I had to look up really really high to take a picture. I was almost dizzy with excitement and joy. This tower dominates the city’s skyline and is visible from many areas. It was now time to go to West Berlin. I was wondering if it was going to be a big change from what we saw here in East Berlin. I felt so in touch with this country and especially its language as I was reading the signs, advertisements… They all seemed pretty clear. This city struck me as truly lacking a structure of any kind but this fact obviously lent it some charming appeal. I think at that moment I had no clue where we were going. West Berlin seemed to have a bit of a structure to it, though there were also construction sites everywhere. This part of the city was home to some really iconic images of Berlin which I was looking forward to seeing later that day.

Ich bin ein Berliner (Part 1)

The next morning we were ready to get back on the road and head off to Berlin. That was a brand new day and a brand new country. I was much excited on that brisk morning and hated to say goodbye to Poland but I knew I was going to be back at the end of my trip. I couldn’t wait to experience Germany. The fact that I did German as my minor at the University added to my excitement.
So we hit the road again. As the night before we were staying at the hotel near the Poland-Germany border, German was just about 10 minutes’ drive away. When I saw a German autobahn sign, I knew it was time to have a ride German style. Everything around us seemed to be clean and well looked after. Germans are generally famous for loving Ordnung (order). I was bubbling over with excitement as I saw signs for Berlin. The German language seemed so easy to read (which is obviously not true) after spending the previous day in futile attempts to figure out quirky Polish words. It felt that I was more at home here in terms of the language which I’m sure can make or break a trip. I was thrilled to get a chance to practise my German (which proved to be not as easy as it seemed at that moment as we were enjoying our ride on the pristine German Autobahn). Needless to say, this road was a far cry from what we have in Russia.
During the course of my trip, I made a point of taking these drives in between the cities and countries as a chance to reflect on things. On my way to Berlin, I started contemplating history again. There was something that enhanced my sense of national identity and made me want to embrace what I am (Russian) as I was about to arrive in Berlin. We might be all just a sum of experiences of our ancestors because at that moment I couldn’t help but wonder what it felt like for Russian soldiers making their way here for the final battle of Berlin in 1945. Even though people of my generation are becoming increasingly ignorant of WWII (or what we call the Great Patriotic War here), one will make no mistake in saying that what started as Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and gave rise to what the generations to come would know as the most genocidal and bloodiest conflict in history, still lingers in this country. A Russian must have a heart of stone not having this page in history resonating in them. I know there’s so much controversy surrounding this war and its picture is not black and white as we might like to think. Some people in the West say this Battle of Berlin which ended with Soviet soldiers hoisting the Soviet flag over the Reichstag (German Parliament) was the case of one totalitarianism trampling over another.
Le drapeau de la victoire
Unfortunately we can’t go back in time and resolve the issues people have been hugely divided on since the day that iconic image of those soldiers flying the Soviet flag over the Reichstag was published in Soviet newspapers. My perspective of this war can be largely subjective and biased as I was born and brought up in the country deeply affected by the Nazi regime. I guess there’s something in my DNA that makes me want to hold on to the belief that it was the Soviet Union that led the way in overthrowing this vicious and deadly regime. We know for a fact that there wasn’t one family unscathed by the war and millions of people were killed or starved in concentration camps. My family was also affected as my great great grandfather was brutally shot by Nazis as he was too poor and frail to leave his village when the Nazis seized it. As much as I resent Stalin as a leader (even though I know my granddad was shocked at the news of his death in 1953 and had the leader’s portrait in his hands with tears running down his cheeks), I’m genuinely outraged at attempts to equate Stalin and Hitler, which I think is a blow to all people in this country. With the Russian casualties in mind, how can one possibly have debates over who started the war which was a “crime against humanity”? I know there were atrocities perpetrated by our soldiers as they encircled and shelled the city of Berlin in 1945. But again with all the atrocities in mind, can one truly blame them for doing bad things which were obviously in the name of a good cause?
I was happy in the knowledge that there will be no shelling or bombing as another group of Russian tourists make their way into this city. This trip to Berlin sparked a flurry of questions in me. Which is more, I knew our first stop would be the Treptower Park with one of the largest Soviet memorials in Berlin that commemorates the death of thousands of Soviet people in the battle of Berlin. This is definitely a must visit for any Russian coming to Berlin. I never knew I would feel the way I felt when I entered the park. It was like a perfect pristine piece of Russia along the Spree River.
The atmosphere was somber and calm and as it was early morning, we had the park to ourselves. I physically felt proud to be Russian as I was standing looking at a remote 70-ton bronze statue of a Soviet soldier holding a German girl in one hand and a sword slashing swastika under his feet in the other and the monument of mother Russia on the left. This memorial was also home to bodies of thousands of soldiers killed in the bloodshed of 1945. The enormity of the park was breathtaking and I got really emotional and incredulous to believe I was actually in Berlin. For a moment I thought Germans were probably bigger in this conflict as the construction of this monument showed the dignity with which they dealt with their Nazi past. At the end of the day, it all comes down to learning from the mistakes of the past and acknowledging them. I was wondering if what we saw in front of our eyes was the German’s way of saying sorry for what had happened years and years before.
This fondly maintained area, beautifully landscaped trees made me want to whisper (I couldn’t dare to scream so as not to break the peace and quiet of the place) that the apology (was it the whole nation that had to say sorry in the first place?) was taken and it was time we put this all behind us and moved on paying tribute to millions of people of different nationalities who were killed in the war. It was a shame that we were given so little time to spend here as we had so many other places we needed to see in the space of one day. My limbs went literally numb as I wished I could make the world stop spinning and stand there taking in the lovely peaceful sky gliding over this magnificent grand monument. I wish every Russian had a chance to come here just once to pay tribute to the enormous sacrifice made by our ancestors. I wished the time would stop. With all those birches around, I actually started missing Russia, yet at the same time no matter how many miles we travelled from our home country, a part of it was right there in front of us. Before we had to leave (luckily, we had enough time to actually get to the foot of the main monument which seemed a long way off as we entered the park), I turned back again to capture what to me as a Russian was more than just a magnificent piece of architecture in case I never get to come here again. Such was my first encounter of Berlin.