Friday, 24 June 2016

Passage to Poland: Baltic Ferry

After my visit to Copenhagen in May, my next stop was Warsaw.

I could've flown between the two cities in a small plane, with the flight taking just over an hour. Instead, I decided to take a surface route - aboard a Baltic ferry.

The Polish company Polferries operates a number of routes between ports in Poland and Sweden. From Copenhagen, a bus takes its passengers to the Swedish port of Ystad, from where an overnight ferry heads to Świnoujście, right at the northwest corner of Poland.

I decided to give this a go. I'd never taken a ferry across the Baltic Sea before, and it would have the added benefit of saving me a night's accommodation in the expensive Danish capital.

This is how it worked. I walked from my hotel near Copenhagen's main railway station, to a dedicated stop next to the Hotel Plaza on the other side of the rail terminus. I could hear some Polish voices in the crowd milling around outside the hotel, so I suspected I was in the right location.

In due course, bus 866 showed up and we were on our way over the Øresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden. This elegant structure has an ominous air in my mind at least, courtesy of the crime thriller series The Bridge:


I was surprised to have my passport checked, along with the rest of the passengers, on the Swedish side of the strait. It seems the recent refugee crisis has forced some temporary tightening of the free-movement Schengen Zone.

Past passport control, we passed through beautiful rolling countryside on our way to Ystad, the setting of another Scandi-noir crime series, Wallander:


There was less romance at the port at Ystad. Most of the bus passengers were taking a different ferry to Bornholm, a Danish island in the Baltic, and the bus pulled up outside that ferry terminal. The terminal for ferries to Poland was a long walk around the port in the open air. Lucky it wasn't raining.

Facilities were fairly basic in the Polish terminal, shared by two Polish ferry companies, and there was a long wait to get aboard. It was about 6pm when I arrived, and foot passengers couldn't check in until 7pm. 

We then had to wait till 9pm to go aboard, amused only by a small snack bar in the terminal's waiting area. I had some sandwiches I'd bought in Denmark for dinner, but no drink. 

Not having any Swedish currency, I managed to talk the snack bar owner into selling me a soft drink for 10 Polish złoty. He wanted more than that in krona, but grudgingly agreed (the drink would be a fraction of that price in Poland, but that's beside the point).

Finally the handful of foot passengers was led aboard by a Polish guy in a safety vest. We realised on approach that he had to insert us through the massive loading bay between huge trucks, so we could reach a lift to the upper decks. This was a bit thrilling, with just a hint of danger.

For all the industrial grit of the lower decks, the upper decks were quite pleasant - although with a touch of 1980s decor in the onboard restaurant and bar:



I headed to the uppermost deck to find my cabin. Having paid for sole use of a two-berth cabin, I was expecting something compact with bunk beds. So I was surprised to find it was three times the size of my Copenhagen hotel room, with two beds and an en suite bathroom:


When I stepped out onto the rear deck directly behind the cabin, I had this view of the fading light as we pulled out of Ystad into the Baltic:



Fortunately this was not one of those occasions on which a storm blows up in the Baltic Sea. It was a very smooth crossing, with a touch of gentle rocking, and I had a decent sleep.

When I awoke about 5.30am it was light outside, with the Polish shore already visible alongside as we navigated into the port within the mouth of the Świna River. I joined the truckers for a buffet breakfast (basic but filling), then mustered with my fellow foot passengers to be led through the deck of massed vehicles to the outside world.

I was pleased to see we had berthed right next to Świnoujście's main train station. I had a ticket for the express train from there to Warsaw at 6.37am, and it looked like I wouldn't have any trouble catching it.

Except... for foot passengers to leave the ferry terminal, we had to traverse an enormously long enclosed walkway that stretched west for what seemed a couple of kilometres. When I finally exited the main building, I had a long walk back down the railway line to the station, passing my ferry on the way (you can see the open 'nose' of the ferry's loading bay here):


I still had time to spare, however. I reached the station and found my reserved seat in the refurbished first class carriage of the 6.37 to Warsaw. I would have it more or less to myself until we reached the next big city, Szczecin.



As I was travelling first class, an attendant soon popped up to present me with a complimentary coffee, a tiny biscuit and the world's smallest tortilla. Seven hours to Warsaw? I was set.

Friday, 17 June 2016

To Melbourne Airport the Cheap-Arse Way (2016 Update)

Here we go again! Every year the bigwigs at Melbourne Airport and Public Transport Victoria tinker with some aspect of the public transport options there, so I have to keep you up with developments.

So... it's time for another update to this blog's most popular post, revealing how to get between the city centre and Melbourne Airport very cheaply on regular public transport. 

Since the 2015 update some key factors have changed, including the fare to the airport (up) and the location of the airport bus stop (moved). So read on...

The cost of getting to and from airports throughout the Western world can be outrageously expensive, and Melbourne is not immune to this problem.

However... there is a way of getting to and from Melbourne Airport cheaply.

So draw your chairs closer, lean in and discover how to save a tidy bit of cash.

For the cheap-arses among us, there is a much cheaper way into the city centre than the 20 minute $19 Skybus journey, though of course it takes longer (about 60 to 70 minutes, depending on connections).

This is how it works...

To Melbourne Airport

From any station in Melbourne's central business district, catch a train along the Craigieburn line and alight at Broadmeadows Station (timetable here).

Step straight out through the station to the bus bay which is just to the right as you clear the building. Here you catch the 901 bus to Melbourne Airport, which leaves approximately every 15 minutes from about 5am to midnight (timetable here).

Note: on Saturdays and Sundays the 901 bus departure intervals are every 30 minutes; and on Sundays the 901 operates from Broadmeadows from about 7am to 9.30pm.

It's important to note that 901 buses going the other direction to Frankston use the same stop, so make sure the bus destination sign says 'Melbourne Airport'.

The bus terminates at a new public transport interchange on Grants Road, next to Terminal 4 at Melbourne Airport. It's obviously a very handy stop for flights aboard Jetstar and Tigerair, the budget airlines serving Terminal 4.

For international flights and Virgin Australia domestic flights respectively, Terminals 2 and 3 are about 10 minutes walk away. For Qantas domestic flights, Terminal 1 is a 15 minute hike. Although there's shelter at most points of the walk, you might need an umbrella if caught in the rain on the wrong side of the road as you go.

Why it isn't possible to have more than one bus stop in operation at the airport is one of the great mysteries of the universe, but that's a puzzle for another day.

From Melbourne Airport

You need a Myki smartcard to travel on Melbourne's public transport, and to get hold of one of these at the airport you have three choices.

1. The easiest option is to buy a card directly from the 901 bus driver, who can also add credit to the card. The card costs $6 to purchase, and on top of that a two-hour fare from the airport to the city centre (and onwards to anywhere in Melbourne within the time limit) is $3.90.

All buses should be equipped for this transaction, but if you strike a bus where it isn't set up or the equipment isn't working, there are two other options.

2. You can instead buy a Myki Visitor Pack from the Skybus ticket booths at the airport. Skybus is the premium departs-every-ten-minutes airport bus which heads to the city centre for $19, so this approach may seem unintuitive.

However, you can get the pack from Skybus. The $14 purchase price includes the standard $6 purchase price for the card, plus $8 of travel credit on standard public transport (ie not Skybus itself). That's more than enough to get to the city centre on a regular bus, then travel onwards to anywhere in the Melbourne metropolitan area.

The visitor pack also includes discount vouchers to major Melbourne attractions and a decorative Myki card wallet, so that may add to the incentive to pick one up.

3. The third option is to buy a Myki card from one of the three Myki ticket machines located at the airport. These are located in the arrivals area of Terminals 2, 3 and 4.

Again, the card itself costs $6 and you top it up with credit; you'll need at least $4 credit to reach the city centre and stay in the black.


The regular bus stop is within the new public transport interchange on Grants Road, near Terminal 4 (so allow 15 minutes walk from Terminal 1, and 10 minutes walk from Terminals 2 and 3). Look for the orange-and-white PTV sign inside the interchange.

Here you board the 901 bus to Frankston, which leaves approximately every 15 minutes from about 5am to midnight (timetable here).

Note: on Saturdays and Sundays the 901 bus departure intervals are every 30 minutes; and on Sundays the 901 operates from the airport from about 6.30am to 9pm.

"Touch on" the card (as the jargon goes) against a Myki reader on board, and take a seat.

When the bus reaches Broadmeadows Station, touch off the card, get out and walk into the station, touching on the card again. Take the underpass to Platform 1. From here a train will take you straight to the city centre (timetable here).

Fares

The Myki fare between the airport and city centre in either direction is a mere $3.90. This sum is automatically subtracted from the card balance when you touch off along the route.

This fare covers both of Melbourne's fare zones, so includes all public transport for the duration of the two hours. Hence you could transfer to another train, a bus or a tram when you reach the city centre, to travel onward within the same fare.

Give me credit

The catch is that you must buy a Myki card for that non-refundable $6 purchase price; though of course you'll be able to keep using it during your stay in Melbourne, and retain it for use on any future visits.

To top up the card's credit, the easiest method is to step into any of the million or so 7-Eleven outlets in the city centre and ask the person behind the counter to do it (it can also be topped up at train stations and at Myki machines at larger tram stops).

To work out how much credit you need during your visit, budget $7.80 per weekday (the capped daily fare) and $6 per weekend day or public holiday. If you like, the 7-Eleven staffer can alternatively add a pass to the card covering all travel over seven days for $39.00.

Going a-Broady

Another good thing about the 901+train option, is that it gets you straight into the "being in Melbourne" vibe – you can eavesdrop on some entertaining conversations on the train to/from Broady, which has a reputation for being one of Melbourne's tougher suburbs.

Don't let that put you off catching the train to/from Broadmeadows though, as it's a staffed station. Do exercise reasonable vigilance however, especially if travelling after dark.

Another catch is that the train+bus option isn't really suitable for people with large amounts of luggage; but if travelling with reasonably small and portable gear, go for it.

So happy flying - and enjoy the cheap ride to/from Melbourne Airport.

Friday, 10 June 2016

The Tour With the Dragon Tattoo: Stieg Larsson's Stockholm

Last month I joined a tour of "Scandi noir" TV crime dramas In Copenhagen, Denmark, which I'll be writing about later. The experience reminded me of the time I took the Millennium tour along the mean modernist streets of Stockholm, Sweden. 

As my article about that tour has since disappeared from the Web, here it is again for your enjoyment...


“Over there is where all the bad people live,” says Kirsti Hirvonen. “At least, according to Stieg Larsson.”

Tour guide Kirsti is gesturing across the water from a high point on the island of Södermalm, just south of Stockholm’s picturesque Old Town.

As our group gazes out at the city spread below us, there’s little evil to be seen. On the contrary, it’s a beautiful vista of church steeples, brightly painted historic buildings and cruise boats.

Larsson, however, was the type of novelist who peels back a city’s prim exterior and reveals the sinister truth beneath.

His immensely popular Millennium trilogy of novels, beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, pits crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist and socially dysfunctional IT genius Lisbeth Salander against a grimy cast of psychopathic killers, corrupt businessmen, crooked cops and sinister gangsters.

Larsson, who died in 2004 before his novels were published, was himself a journalist who investigated right-wing extremism.

As he lived here in Södermalm, he chose its streets as the setting for the Stockholm sections of his stories, using real addresses and peopling them with good guys such as Blomkvist and his colleagues at Millennium magazine.

The black hats lived over there across the water, in the establishment part of town. Not that it’s all bad – Kirsti points out the distinctive brown-brick bulk of the City Hall, where the Nobel Prize winners each year are celebrated at a lavish banquet.

Our tour group met outside Bellmansgatan 1, the fictional address of Blomkvist. It’s an attractive old building with reddish-brown walls, a pointed tower and planter boxes in the windows.

It looks too expensive for a journo, but Kirsti tells us that the building is actually public housing, and that creative types still live in this area of Sodermalm.

“Söder”, as it’s nicknamed, was once one of the poorest districts in Stockholm, housing many factories and humble working-class homes. However, it’s been thoroughly gentrified in recent decades and is now packed with top-notch restaurants and cutting-edge bars.

As we walk, Kirsti points out locations used in both the Swedish and Hollywood films of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, explaining the differences between the two versions.

She also relays a funny story about the American movie’s director David Fincher, whose Hollywood credentials couldn’t save him from being given a bad table at a local restaurant.

Speaking of which, we then pause outside the Lebanese restaurant Tabbouli, which Larsson tweaked to Bosnian restaurant Samir’s Cauldron in his books. Nearby is Lundagatan, where Salander first lived in a tiny apartment.

According to Kirsti, this ace researcher and surprisingly good fighter was based on Pippi Longstocking, the unconventional, assertive children’s book character created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren.

The architecture is changing as we move away from the water, revealing big concrete housing blocks from the 1960s.

As we pass them, Kirsti discusses the dispute over the ownership of Larsson’s work since he died, claimed by both his family and his de facto partner. Her useful advice: “If you’re living together and not married, make a will.”

Reaching Hornsgatan, we leave the quiet streets behind for the bustle of a busy commercial road and pause at Mellqvist Kaffebar, a real-life café frequented by Blomkvist in the novels.

In real life Larsson had an office nearby, and it’s easy to imagine him having the inspiration for his stories while enjoying fika (a coffee break) here.

More fiction landmarks follow as we head east past grand art nouveau apartment buildings once owned by wealthy industrialists.

There's Maria Square, an early hangout of Salander; Salvation Tattoo, her favourite tattoo parlour; the synagogue attended by police inspector Bublanski; and the address of the Millennium offices above Gotgatan, a lively pedestrian street.

Plunging into a well-groomed residential quarter, we pass the beautiful St Catherine’s Church to admire the flash apartment building bought into by Salander after she fleeced a dodgy businessman of his billions.

Descending hillside steps to the square in front of Slussen Metro station, I feel the memorable scenes of the Millennium novels have been vividly filled out in my mind by the colours, sounds and smells of Sodermalm’s real-life streets.

And there’s one more treat in store – before she walks off, Kirsti points me to Nystekt Stromming, a van in front of the station which she says serves the city’s best herring burger.


I walk over, order one, and before long am sitting at a plastic table in the late northern summer sunshine, chewing away as I look over the nearby waterway. There’s something fishy going on here, but for once it isn’t happening in the pages of a Larsson thriller.

The Millennium Tour departs 11.30am Saturdays from October to June; then at
6pm Wednesdays and 11.30am Saturdays from July to September. Ticket $20, visit stadsmuseet.stockholm.se.

Friday, 3 June 2016

I Love Lviv

I paid for my travel to Ukraine, and was hosted by the Ibis Styles Lviv Center hotel.

Ukraine is the final country on my four-week journey through Europe, and my first stop was the western city of Lviv.

Lviv is western in more ways than one. Over the past century it has been a city in a) the Austro-Hungarian Empire; b) Poland; c) the USSR; d) independent Ukraine. This tumultuous history has bequeathed it some stunning architecture, and its entire city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Central Lviv reminded me very strongly of the Polish city of Kraków as it looked some 20 years ago; beauty to be seen everywhere, but also a lot of cracked pavers and peeling paint. 

As someone mentioned to me on social media, it's as if Prague and Kraków had a beautiful little sister that no-one knew about. It's a striking place with a great number of harmonious 19th century facades. It feels as if a Central European city was unexpectedly shunted into Eastern Europe (which is more or less what happened).

Just as pleasant were the low low prices. I gained the first inkling of this on arrival when I caught a tram from the train station to the city centre; it cost 2 hryvnia, about 10 cents. I sent the next few days buying excellent meals for a few dollars, and enjoying Lviv's impressive cafe scene for even less than that.

If only the Ukrainian government would drop its visa requirement for Australians, we'd be there en masse. Even with the expensive visa ($157!), you effectively get your money back via the cheapness of everything on the ground. Even a room at the Ibis Styles, an attractive new hotel on the edge of the Old Town, is only $90 a night.

Here's a selection of photos from my stay in this impressive city...