Monthly Archives: April 2016

And wandered in Wales

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Is heaven, or the centre of the universe to be found in the near-lost corner of north Wales that forms a leg of lamb shape including the Llyn Peninsula, the coast running south as far as Harlech and encompasses Snowdonia National Park?

If not, how can I make sense of our outing to Braich y Pwll, at the end of a long road, where the land meets the sea to Bardsey Island? In this place, my family and I stood, then sat, on the grassy headland, as near to the temperamental sea as we could get, staring at the waves looking for seals and porpoises. I’d bought us here because it sounded interesting, the old launching point for pilgrimage boats to Bardsey, and I thought there was a chance that we might see something. Searching the waves while we ate our lunch had yielded nothing more than a pair of choughs, crow-like and underwhelming, and the boys, seeing wonder in the waves, had claimed a whale sighting or two. We stood to leave this beautiful place, which had been ours alone, when George shouted and pointed at the water. A grey-headed seal, 50 feet or so from us, close enough to make up his face and staring at the shoreline so intently he might as well have been asking us the time. It was magical. After a longish time he dived under the water, and we spent a happy half hour watching him, and another seal, bob about in the turbulent currents of these straits.

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Since then I have thought a lot about this thrilling meeting. The boys were desperate to see a seal, and had talked of nothing else. We had come to that place not in expectation, but to look, and see what we saw. Two peregrine falcons hovered overhead, at one point looking like they were going to swoop near us with their record-breaking velocity. But it was this curious seal, and why he picked there and then to give us such a moment, and why the land, and the sea, and the sky all combined to freeze everything in time, which has puzzled me since. A moment to make you forever look up, and keep you eyes peeled.

And if north Wales isn’t heaven, then how come it has steam trains rattling up and down hillsides, and turning Porthmadog into a kind of island of Sodor made real? On one day George, Winnie and I take the Welsh Highland Railway to Beddgelert, racing Harry and Imogen in the car (an honourable draw). We sit in the open carriage without windows, and on departing immediately cross the mainline on a kind of crossroads you’ve only seen in Brio railways but now made real, then run alongside another steam service called Emma. She belongs to near-namesake the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway. Then we ride up through tunnels and past a mountain called Cnicht that looks like a medieval helmet, and past the Aberglaslyn River and by the time we get off I am in some kind of reverie.

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Completing the sense of something strange and special was the ascent of Snowdon. This had been discussed for weeks but due to my Dad’s schedule we only had one shot, on a day where rain was forecast. We headed up the Pyg Track in darkening cloud, but as we climbed higher things brightened up, even if we were in cloud for three hours or so of heroics from George (8) and Harry (6), who skipped up the bulk of Yr Wyddfa and claimed a notable top, their biggest yet. It looks like not much can hold them back. The summit was frigid, bitterly cold with the odd flake of snow and Imogen & I briefly worried, hurrying them back down. Such heights always have teeth. A maintenance train clanked up the cog railway at one point, an incredible delight growling out of the mist. Dad applauded its talismanic arrival. It chugged over the rails I had lay down on in mock submission a few minutes before. The lower slopes gave up trying to scare us, and offered us plenty of views of Glaslyn and the Miner’s Track. The boys skipped down, too.

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On our last night Imogen and I drove over to Lloyd George’s grave in Llanystumdwy. This very secular burial mound by the rushing river Dwyfor seemed alive with the spirits of the place. It seemed sunny, damp, warm and cold and infused with life everywhere in the late Spring evening we were there.

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And then going home, snow laced our passage out of Avalon and into mid-Wales, where our reluctant escape seemed to run dry in quicksand of towns with impenetrable names and valleys straight from my imagination I was now seeing in reality. So is it really all these things? You decide. I have decided.

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Warsawa Centralna, and hostelling in Poland in the early noughties

In Krakow the hostel had been a chaotic, strange place. Dormitories were filled with long-term Australian residents who vetted a new arrival like me. They seemed unwilling or unable to move on. One especially odd individual had purchased some website domain names he was sure would make him his fortune with no effort on this part at all. The rooms were musty and the corridors echoed with noise day and night. Krakow was that kind of magic backpacker town. Like Prague a few years before, it was somewhere the world’s budget travelers came to drink and dance, as carefree as the thousand of students who had piled in at the same time I’d arrived. On my first day I sat in the huge main square and stared happily at this parade of youthful optimism laughing its way around the city. What a joyful place this was. At night it revved up a notch further, if my one night out with an awkward international group was anything to go by. It was made stranger that the day trip of choice here was to Auschwitz, arguably the one place you’re least likely to feel like going and and having fun after visiting. For those studying here, or remaining here for indeterminate period as their funds eked away of course, that didn’t apply.

Warsaw was a different proposition. On first arriving, late at night, I checked into a room which was part of a sports complex, utterly alone. I fled early the next morning, buying an astonishingly cheap week’s rail pass and boarding the first train to Gdansk. I was eager to begin traveling so didn’t linger in Warsaw, saving it for the end of the trip.

Then again, I had reckoned without my own plans taking me through Warsaw Central station twice more, once on the way south, to Krakow, Zakopane and the Tatras, and once on the way back to fly home. On each occasion I found the station as fearsome as when I’d first passed by. From outside, a concrete monolith planted by one of the vast boulevards I’d imagined were carved from the wreckage of WW2 that looked neither promising nor romantic. I love lingering at stations, from Barcelona Franca to Prague Hlavni, but all there was to do here was struggle to find a platform and flee the incessant smell of urine. Later, when writing for the Observer (yes, I once wrote once a week for the Observer, I did, and I shall not forget the odd mix of terror and excitement of my views and advice being published every seven days) I ventured forth my view that WC was not nice. I received several letters chiding me, and reminding me that Warsaw was raised to the ground and the station was all they could afford. I felt bad and never wrote another critical word. After all, stations are essentially functional and plenty of people love modernism and brutalism. Sorry Warsaw Central. I have recently learnt that this, too, was incorrect. In fact the station was designed to be something of a bold statement of intent for communist Poland, but a scheduled visit from Leonid Brezhnev has forced cutbacks that led to the station ending up in its current state. So I claim some deliverance from my earlier shame. 

The station has, I gather, been spruced up for the European Championships a few years ago. Some people call it a classic. So maybe it too has achieved salvation.

Either way, when exploring Warsaw I didn’t hang out at the station. I did after the oddities encountered in Krakow give the main hostel another go. Hostelling International places aren’t generally the party places. I pitched up during a rainy night either this century or at the end of the last. After one of the rubbish dinners my travels are famous – pace the city in increasing agony at being unable to settle for somewhere, then plump for something foul and unhealthy that doesn’t involve interacting with a waiter – I’d retreated to the kitchen area. The whole place was silent, and accessed by a staircase above some shops. There were no staff there and few guests, and I expected to have the place to myself. Slowly the room filled up. First with a small group of Aussies, who invited me to join their card game provided I brought along my transistor radio and stuck some much on, and a group of Russian young men who plonked themselves down next to us and proceeded to drink. They passed a bottle round and did shots from it, and occasionally offered everyone else some, which I politely declined. The evening wore on in this fashion, with an increasingly absorbing card game and easy patter punctuated by drunken shouts from the next table. At one stage the cheesy Polish pop on the radio (the phrase tickled my Australian companions, which I found flattering that they noticed) gave way to Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ which sent our companions into a frenzy of almost Viking-style chanting and banging the table, roaring ‘Kylie! Kylie! Kylie!’. This also went on for some time. At some forgotten point I ambled off to bed, and the next morning flew home. Warsaw, too, was wonderful in its own way.