Warsaw

Warsaw

 

If the way things went at the start of this trip were a suggestion of what might happen, we should probably already be wondering what might be next. Travelling with the Pertons has always been something of a challenge and one of our journeys without some quite serious hiccough would no doubt feel incomplete.

 

It was around 14:45 on Friday last, a while before our housesitter was due to arrive to drive us to the airport, that she turned-up having heard that the N2 (the road we use to access the airport) was closed due to a protest in Somerset West. Added to the stop/go roadworks on Clarence Drive, the coast road that connects us to the rest of the world, an earlier than usual departure was suddenly necessary.

 

 

 

 

Curiously, the roadworks didn’t cause much delay, but my decision to parallel the N2 on what is quaintly referred to as Stellenbosch Arterial Road, did. The traffic crawled, while in the distance, the inbound traffic visible on the now cleared N2 was speeding along.

 

Much tension in the car…

 

Airport check-in complete in next to no-time and with only Immigration to go before a nerve un-jangling drink in the lounge, we passed security and ran into the longest queue it is possible to form inside Cape Town International. It stretched from the security screening section all along the concourse, down the stairs, into the usual snake for access to the Immigration desks; at least 100m.

 

There were hundreds of would-be flyers queueing, many for flights due to depart in minutes. Looking at the aircraft on the ramp, there were international flights leaving for Istanbul, Luanda, a charter to somewhere in Germany, London and our own aeroplane to Dubai. At a guess, possibly fifteen hundred passengers, most of whom were in the same queue. Mindful of the impending departures, there was a constant calling of passengers likely to cause delays, or worse miss flights, to go directly to Immigration, bypassing the monster queue.

 

Our inching forward continued for the best part of an hour, which eventually bought us face-to-face with an Immigration official who was swearing up a blue fit in her very best Afrikaans. With only five of the twelve desks Immigration booths manned, the workload and need to hurry was proving to be way too much for her. We were glad to get our passports stamped and head for a drink, now possible because our flight had been delayed for about twenty minutes by the late arrival of the inbound flight from Dubai.

 

 

 

 

And yes, it’s easy to say; “You should try this at JFK on a sweltering New York afternoon,” but the truth is that Immigration (and most of the other services) at Cape Town International have improved beyond recognition in recent years.

 

I’m wondering whether the return of Malusi Gigaba as minister of Home Affairs isn’t to blame.

 

Dubai at stupid o’clock was the usual silicone-smooth transfer point and in no time our Boeing 777 was touching down in Warsaw. The weather? Clear and a balmy at -3C.

 

City access is always one of the issues I deal with before committing to any city stopover. Most are pretty good, Warsaw amongst them. All the choices are there; train, bus, taxi and everyone’s current favourite, Uber. We opted for the former and in twenty-odd minutes, alighted at Warsaw Centralina – the main rail terminus for the city. A walk of less than 200 metres got us to our charming, recently renovated and snugly warm apartment – our home for the next four nights.

 

En route, we’d noticed a branch of Vapiano* and decided an early supper there would put a nice full stop on the day, with several hours unbroken sleep to follow.

 

Like several Eastern European cities, Warsaw was extensively damaged during the second World War. Most of the damage has been repaired and the buildings re-built. It’s unavoidable, but there is a distinct feeling of ersatz, especially in the Old Town and areas around what was the Jewish Ghetto and rebuilt city wall. Nonetheless, we wandered the streets and alleyways and sampled pierogi for lunch.

 

The walk back to our apartment – the Uber driver we were waiting for was snarled in traffic and the system eventually cancelled our call. We wanted to see more of this fascinating city and opted to walk instead.

 

 

 

 

The nation’s politics is described as a “unitary semi-presidential representative democratic republic”, which by its very definition, has all the hallmarks of the preceding regime. The ousting of the communists has really changed everything in Poland and since the ‘80s, both democracy and free trade have become deeply entrenched.

 

The nation remains strong agriculturally, producing much of Europe’s vegetables, grain and meat products. Manufacturing is strong and membership of the EU has given the Poles yet more to work toward. The cost of living is surprisingly low, employment high and the standards of both education and living are at least on a par with many other European states.

 

The tell-tales of communism are being razed daily, but it is still possible to glimpse a reminder; patched stoneware, telling stories of bullets and shrapnel, or the tiny entrance ways leading into the courtyards of the era, blocks of grim, grey apartments that provided basic housing and little else.

 

Lost? Either look for the Palace of Culture and Science, a communist-era wedding cake whose 30 storeys dominate the city’s skyline and provide an excellent landmark from pretty much anywhere. Alternatively, do as the guide book suggests; ask anyone who looks under 30 – they all speak English because it’s taught in school.

 

The newly opened Koszyki food hall is just a couple of blocks away from our apartment. It is a re-modelled market and now boasts, food markets, bookshops, several bars and lots of restaurants. A stay in Warsaw would definitely be incomplete without a visit.

 

 

 

 

Self-catering as we are, we’ve noticed that food and drink and eating out in general is significantly cheaper than other cities we’ve visited in recent times. A pleasant change that. It also made us understand that closed on Sunday means exactly that. A few restaurants were open, but little else – be warned.

 

Then, it what seemed like moments and we were re-packing and heading for Centralina station for the train to Berlin and the second city on our mostly eastern European explore.

 

Comments below please!

 

* Vapiano is a chain of Italian semi-self serve restaurants, which produce good, sensibly priced, reliable food. We first discovered them in Stockholm.

Sundowners lion(ess) style

Family times

Jozi skyline

Jozi skyline

 

So, Laura and Julian (and Zach and Amy) are home after an all-too-short fortnight in South Africa. It was touch and go – the Beast from the East has been holding the UK’s airports to ransom for the last week and we all had visions of overnight stays for the homeward travellers in Dubai.

 

Fortunately not.

 

We managed to cram a lot into that time, including several days in Cape Town, a trip to the bush and time in Jozi, for sightseeing and most importantly, what could well prove to be the wedding of the year.

 

It was natural that the kids – I know they’re adults, but old habits die hard – wanted time in Cape Town. They lived here in Rooi Els before buying their own flat in the Bo Kaap and re-visiting old haunts and taking their respective partners along to show them what life in SA was and remains like, was high on their list of priorities.

 

Then it was back to Rooi Els for a couple of days. Friday saw us get an excruciatingly early morning call (03:30), transfer to the airport, flight to Jozi* and finally, yet another transfer, this time to Madikwe, on Botswana’s south eastern bolder, just in time for the afternoon game drive.

 

Mine

Mine

 

Sundowners lion(ess) style

Sundowners lion(ess) style

 

Elephants in the Madikwe River at dusk

Elephants in the Madikwe River at dusk

 

It was worth it. We’d been paired with what proved to be the reserve’s best driver/guide/ranger, who within minutes of leaving the gate protecting the camp, found a pair of you female cheetahs for us to ogle at. Recently released into the reserve, they are both wearing radio collars, to enable them to be tracked and their settling down monitored. Hopefully soon, they will be free of these ugly encumbrances and left to roam the veldt in peace and quiet.

 

The game drive set a pattern; up for an 06:00 drive, return, breakfast and morning lolling and lunch followed by afternoon lolling, until around 16:00 when the second drive of the day and sundowners in the bush bought our game watching to a halt. Back to the camp for supper, a few more drinks and bed – only to start again at 05:00 the next morning. It’s tiring stuff, I tell you.

 

Our two inexperienced game viewers soon got into the swing of things, put away their pre-conceived ideas that a safari was akin to a drive around an area slightly larger and better populated than a European zoo, or stately home attraction. There’s not much that can prepare you for your first sight of giraffe gambolling, zebras herding, or impala gazing doe eyed at you.

 

Still less, the sight of a pair of young lionesses, covered in the blood of the kudu they and their mother had killed minutes earlier, playing and fighting over the late beast’s tail.

 

We’d have missed that, save for the inestimable Benson, who spotted the lion spoor and followed it into the nearby bush, finding and ensuring we saw this unique event.

 

Immature zebra huddle

Immature zebra huddle

 

Rhino

Rhino

 

Sunset

Sunset

 

Hot on the heels of the lion kill, a short detour on the way back to camp one afternoon saw a small group of elephant emerge from the river near the camp. Then more. And more. Eventually, more than a hundred elephant wandered past, still soaking wet and caked in the region’s red mud, having drunk their fill. Amongst the adult and immature, tiny babies, barely days old, each watched over by a fiercely protective mother and the rest of the herd, guarding against the predators which could so easily take one of these new additions as an evening meal.

 

Wrap up; Benson ensured that our guests returned to London having seen the Big Five; lion, leopard, rhinoceros (both black and white species), elephant, and cape buffalo, a feat rarely achieved in a single visit to any of our game parks. Full marks to the Madikwe River Lodge and Benson – we’ll be back.

 

Jozi called – the wedding was just days away and we headed east, back to the big city for rehearsals, sightseeing and just a glimpse of the way things used to be – a dinner at the Thunder Gun steakhouse in Northcliff.

 

A small group of the hundred-odd elephants that emerged from the Madikwe River at dusk

A small group of the hundred-odd elephants that emerged from the Madikwe River at dusk

 

Waiting for the apex predators to finish

Waiting for the apex predators to finish

 

Sunset

Sunset

 

It’s fifty years since the Thunder Gun opened its doors and while the prices and times may have changed, the dark wood panelling, booths and banquettes have all stood the test of time. With a reputation for ribs and steaks, our visitors opted for the latter, only to discover that the 600g portion was a serious plate of food and that the 1Kg serving they’d contemplated might eventually have killed them, just by food mass alone.

 

The bride and groom led the charge, but our guys weren’t far behind. Ribs this good might even convince us to re-locate to Jozi once more.

 

Ribs, ribs and yet more ribs. This is Zach. Groom, Ed is busy building up a bad dose of the meat-sweats on his right

Ribs, ribs and yet more ribs. This is Zach. Groom, Ed is busy building up a bad dose of the meat-sweats on his right

 

Ed and Jess married on Friday afternoon at a ceremony out in the country. Jess’ parents – Keith and Marietjie Farley – old friends from our many years living in Johannesburg – put on a fantastic spread and Ed’s folks, fresh off the plane from the UK, got a real taste of South African hospitality. Of course, Jess and her brother Ross, Laura and Julian had been friends for ever and as if that weren’t enough, the two girls has even spent several years at Rhodes together.

 

The wine and beer flowed, fine food was served and the dancing could even have auditioned for Strictly. It was just as though the years had been swept away and we were all once more living in one of the world’s great cities.

 

Saturday morning was not a time of serious activity. Desultory packing completed, we headed for ORT once more – this time the kids were off to Dubai and London and we were heading for a parentally sombre flight to Cape Town. Still, we’ll be in London in little more than a month and the opskop can continue once more.

 

Mine (2)

Mine (2)

 

Mine (3)

Mine (3)

 

Wildebeeste

Wildebeeste

 

* Five times in my last six arrivals in Jozi (Johannesburg) my luggage has been rifled. This time, my tiny wireless router and rain jacket went missing. Both Amy and Zach’s luggage was also opened, but fortunately, they lost nothing.

 

Complaining doesn’t help – no-one takes any notice. British Airways wanted me to fill out forms and register a complaint – and keep five other people waiting, spoiling their day and missing the game drive we were trying so hard to catch.

 

This isn’t a new thing – luggage theft at O R Tambo has been a scourge on travellers for years. It’s hardly the airline’s problem as Swissport hold the contract for baggage handling and their unions refuse to allow CCTV and visual management, lest it impact the employees’ human rights. Right to steal ad libitum more like.

 

Maybe it’s time for the airlines to simply refuse to use Swissport’s services until the situation is improved. There’s probably a million reasons why that won’t happen, but in all honesty, we can hardly greet the hundreds of thousands of of tourists we want in South Africa, with lost valuables and reams of paperwork that no-one reads or does anything about, anyway.

 

No. My solution is to refuse to fly through ORT at all. Either I/we get direct flights in future, or if forced, I’ll travel with no more than a carry-on.

 

Coffee in the sun and shadows - Jozi

Coffee in the sun and shadows – Jozi

Close up, National Botanical Gardens

Singapore. Again.

Yes, we shopped a bit, too

Yes, we shopped a bit, too

 

Our first trip of the year – Singapore. Again.

 

This was our umpteenth visit and while we don’t have permanent residence papers, we probably qualify for them by now.

 

Not that we’d be able to live here; accommodation is scarily expensive, most apartments tiny. The climate is a problem too. In addition to the almost 100% humidity, the daily temperatures in January/February hover around a doable 31C/32C, but in a month or so, they’ll zoom up to 40C. We’ve been here in March and at 39C, everything pretty much stops. There’s nowhere to hide – air conditioned shops, hotels, bars and restaurants are fine, but at some point you have to go outside to get somewhere, or you may as well say home.

 

Lunch for one

Lunch for one

 

Statue at Parkview

Statue at Parkview

 

Close up, National Botanical Gardens

Close up, National Botanical Gardens

 

Close up, National Botanical Gardens

Close up, National Botanical Gardens

 

No, these visits are to do and re-do the things we’ve discovered over the years. We wander the streets, malls and parks, eat in just about every flavour of restaurant imaginable, drink ice cold Tiger beer and generally lap up the easy going, almost crime-free environment, where politeness and courtesy rank alongside service end efficiency.

 

After several false starts, we’ve made our home from home at a hotel on Robertson Quay, just metres from the clamour of Clarke Quay and thousands of drinking, partying tourists eighteen hours a day. There’s nothing fancy about it, including the room rates, but the beds are clean, there’s abundant hot water, air conditioning and free wi-fi. There’s even a unique Euro-Asian buffet breakfast included – good if you enjoy fried eggs, baked beans, fried rice and toast!

 

Fortunately, it’s not obligatory.

 

Close up, National Botanical Gardens

Close up, National Botanical Gardens

 

Close up, National Botanical Gardens

Close up, National Botanical Gardens

 

Night time lighting, Robertson Quay

Night time lighting, Robertson Quay

 

Saunders Road, just off Emerald Hill

Saunders Road, just off Emerald Hill

 

Anyway, it’s peaceful, there are restaurants aplenty, an MRT station (subway) next door, bus routes to pretty much anywhere and if all else fails, lots and lots of the city state’s surprisingly affordable taxis.

 

There’s also walks along the Singapore River, towards the CBD, Parliament, downtown and just about anywhere else you might wish to wander.

 

What’s not to like?

 

Our normal stays in the city are four or five days, but in the hope that we could tempt Laura and Julian (and Zach and Amy) to join us, this trip was set down for ten nights. It wasn’t to be – as friends had wedding plans in Jozi for February and understandably our invite got binned.

 

We did wonder what we’d do with all that time, but as it turned out, we could have used at least two more days to (re)do the things we wanted. Late January is definitely the time of year to visit, despite the daily rain. And, with less emphasis on walking across town from place to place, public transport is definitely the way. It also ensures that we both arrive in a relatively dry condition that doesn’t require sitting under a cool air outlet, or fan for half an hour, to get us back to some kind of social presentability.

 

Anyway, I won’t bore you with a list of dids and didn’ts; you can see some of them in the photographs. Comments at the bottom, please.

 

Emerald Hill, just steps from shopping-central, Orchard Road

Emerald Hill, just steps from shopping-central, Orchard Road

 

The lounge at Parkview

The lounge at Parkview

 

The lounge at Parkview

The lounge at Parkview

 

Fort Canning MRT station - our nearest

Fort Canning MRT station – our nearest

 

Haji Lane – one of Singapore’s best known tourist spots

Coups d’œil en Province