Thursday 25 June 2015

Old Stations: By Train to Zielona Góra, Poland

On my recent journey through Poland for Lonely Planet, I did a lot of train travel.

As I've written before, this often revealed newly-renovated railway stations, their architectural charm revealed by a thorough clean and rebuild.

But not all train stations can receive the Wrocław Główny treatment, especially on quieter, less crucial routes.

As it happened, one day I needed to travel from Jelenia Góra (Deer Mountain) in Lower Silesia to Zielona Góra (Green Mountain) in the Lubusz region.

There were only two direct trains a day; and as the first departed about 5.30am, I waited for the second at 1.30pm.

It was a four-hour journey on a second-class stopping train through the green countryside between the two western cities. 

I passed some of the time watching a recent remake of The Lady Vanishes on my iPad...

... but otherwise I looked out the window on a sunny day, taking in the Polish countryside and the numerous old stations served by this stopping-all-stations train. 

They were intriguing, in a range of architectural styles from different eras (and many would have been built when this area was part of Germany). 

They also ranged from once-grand civic buildings down to tiny stops that hardly counted as stations at all.
It was such an interesting route, that I started taking photos of the stations. Here's a selection. 

I've included an approximate pronunciation of the station names by the way, as I've found working out the passing stations provides great practice in my Polish pronunciation. 

Enjoy! This is Zaręba, za-REM-ba:

Here's Jerzmanki, yezh-MAN-kee:

The station at Iłowa Żagańska (ee-WOV-a Zha-GAN-ska ) has seen better days:

Humble Konin Żagański (KON-een zha-GAN-skee) is hardly there at all:

Jankowa Żagańska (yan-KOV-a zha-GAN-ska) station is looking a little frayed:

And last of all is humble Letnica (let-NEETS-a):

That was a fun day on the rails, long as the journey was. Travelling by train in Poland is always interesting, and always tosses up some fragments of the complex past.

Note: I paid for my own travel in Poland. Usually by speaking broken Polish through a glass window to a surprisingly patient ticket seller.

Friday 19 June 2015

Overland by Rail to Horsham, Australia

Our guest blogger this week is fantasy fiction author Narrelle M Harris.

She recently spent a few days in the Wimmera region of Victoria, Australia, visiting local libraries to present talks and writing workshops. Narrelle caught Great Southern Rail’s Overland train service to Horsham, and writes about the experience here.

The fact that Great Southern Rail’s Overland train from Melbourne to Adelaide makes stops along the way in rural Victoria is one of its best kept secrets. Even locals in Horsham were surprised that I was able to arrive directly from Melbourne by rail (and a few of them went off eagerly to look at websites for timetables).

I caught the train heading west early on a Tuesday morning. Given I have a history of catching the wrong train to rural destinations, I was grateful for the assistance provided by the station staff in making sure I was at the right place at the right time for this one.

The on-board staff were also kind to a tired writer in the early AM, and didn’t laugh when I asked them to make sure I didn’t fall asleep and miss my stop.

I generally prefer trains to planes for travel, and the Overland was a reminder of the reasons why.

The Red Premium class seat was comfortably padded, with plenty of room across for my hips and in front for my legs. There was even a little footstool, if I’d been inclined to tip my seat back and have a nap.

The Overland has a charming, old-fashioned feeling; which seems fitting for Australia’s oldest interstate train service, founded in 1887.

It’s comfortable and neat, but not fancy or hyper-modern, giving a comforting sense of a more relaxed era of travel. I was reminded of the Agatha Christie novel, At Bertram’s Hotel, with its hotel unsettlingly reminiscent of yesteryear (though without that book’s rather shady underpinnings).

The café car was sweet too, with seating and little tables. The meals were good – my veggie curry was excellent, and I can recommend the scones, jam and cream which were themselves recommended to me by a fellow passenger.

It was nice to sit, having lunch, making notes in a diary and gazing out of the window at the passing landscape as we moved through Victoria’s suburbs, towns and bushland.

The announcements as the train reached each of its stops were unexpected and a bit naff, but also part of the whole friendly, low-key feel of the trip. And I learned things – like the fact that Ararat was settled by Chinese immigrants (a fact I now intend to use in a book I’m writing).

A lot of my fellow travellers were in an older age group, and the staff were focused on ensuring they were comfortable and their needs were met. That level of care made sure I did alight correctly at my stop; and on my return journey a few days later, the same staff recognised me and helped me board again.

Uber-cool, flashy and modern, it isn’t; but if you want friendly service, comfortable seats and a sense of pleasant, old-fashioned travel, the Overland is a good way to travel from Melbourne to western Victoria and on to Adelaide.

Narrelle travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail; learn more about its Overland service by clicking here. Journeys aboard the Overland within Victoria can be booked via V/Line.

Friday 12 June 2015

Hajnówka, Poland: Lunch off the Beaten Track

Even when researching for Lonely Planet, it's rare that I'll visit a place without already knowing something about it. 

When updating for LP, I always have the previous text about that town to refer to, and maybe a map. Like Newton, though on a less serious topic, I can see further because I'm standing on the shoulders of giants... er, well, on the shoulders of colleagues who've been there before me.

This was not the case last Tuesday when I visited Hajnówka, a town of 20,000 or so in the far east of Poland. I was on my way to back to Warsaw from Białowieża, a village on the Belarus border which is the focal point for the national park which bears its name (and contains wild bison).

Though Białowieża is an attractive place, it's notoriously fiddly to get to and from by public transport. In this case, I had to catch a minibus to Hajnówka, from where I would get a mid-afternoon train to Siedlce, from where I would catch a final train to Warsaw.

I already knew that Hajnówka's train station was slightly out of town and had no cafes or restaurants where I could kill time before the train. So instead of hanging about my hotel in Białowieża, I decided to take an earlier bus to Hajnówka and have lunch there.

The minibus dropped me off on ul 3 Maja, a long commercial street near an old church. I recognised the street as I'd changed buses there a few days before on my way to Białowieża from the city of Białystok; they sometimes terminated there rather than at the lonely train station. And I knew from walking up and down it that day, that it had few or no restaurants.

So I was back to basics. I'd noticed on Google Maps that there was a shopping complex, prefixed with "Galeria" nearby, so I walked to that. In bigger Polish cities this woud be a full-blown mall with cafes. Here, it turned out to be one of those "big box" centres you find at the edge of country towns, specialising in furniture and hardware and not much else.

So I walked on with my eyes open, completing a triangle by following a cross street back toward the old church. And it was here that I found the Restauracja Starówka:

Judging from its signage, this was one of those Polish restaurants that specialise in regional dishes, which was fine with me. I could tell though, that they didn't have many - if any - international visitors at their tables. 

For a start, the waitress seemed a little startled to have a non-Polish speaker to serve, though we got on all right with my basic Polish. It was lucky I had that and a translate facility on my phone, because the menu was entirely in Polish:

To make things even more challenging, I was trying to order vegetarian. But that's not as hard as it sounds - if you point at the menu and politely ask "Który jest wegetariański?" (note: bad grammar), the waiter can help you out.

So I ended up having this soup, which translated as "Lentil soup with red lentils. The base is the tomatoes, onion, vegetarian. Aromatic, dense, garlic, thyme. Served with sour cream":

It was delicious, as was my main course - pierogi, the classic Polish dumplings. If you want a vegetarian main in a formal restaurant, this will often be the only vegetarian thing on the menu. 

Luckily, they're great. These were pierogi ruskie, a common variant to find on a Polish menu, translated here as "Potato dumplings topped with cheese sauce with butter." Sometimes they have bacon bits scattered over the top, but that was optional here:

For dessert, I selected something which translated prosaically as "Chocolate cake with a scoop of ice cream." But what arrived was this:

It was quite spectacular.

Adding a coffee to that, the bill came to a total of 44 złoty, about A$15 at current rates. For an excellent three-course lunch in the middle of nowhere, this seemed great value.

After that, I walked off some of the calories on the 15-minute stroll to the train station, where this was waiting for me:

I enjoyed my brief culinary foray into Hajnówka. 

It reminded me that, no matter how useful are guidebooks and online travel resources (and I use both all the time), it's good to maintain your own travel skills and go off the beaten track from time to time. 

The little personal discoveries make your visits to the big, well-known sights even sweeter.  

Note: I paid for my own travel while researching for Lonely Planet in Poland. If you're ever passing through Hajnówka, you can find the Restauracja Starówka at ul Wierobieja 21.

Sunday 7 June 2015

Sausages & Cheesecake: Hotel Breakfast in Poland

I've been in Poland just over four weeks now on my current Lonely Planet assignment, so I've eaten almost 30 breakfasts. 

Barring a few nights in self-catered apartments, these breakfasts have been Polish hotel spreads. And I do mean "spreads". Even at three-star hotels, there tends to be a diverse array of foodstuffs to choose from.

Now I'm in the eastern city of Białystok, staying at the four-star Hotel Branicki, the breakfast plenty has been nudged up another notch. So I thought I'd used this hotel's selection as a rough guide to Poland's hotel breakfast spreads.

First, the hot dishes. Under the cover on the right, we have boiled sausages, scrambled eggs and bacon. 

The bacon is atypical of a Polish hotel breakfast, and only shows up at places that have a lot of international guests. It's that streaky brittle kind of bacon, as favoured by North Americans.

The scrambled eggs at this hotel are slightly atypical too, in that the white and yolks are thoroughly blended. In Polish scrambled eggs, or jajecznica, you usually see a lot of white among the yellow.

Over on the left are breakfast cereals, with bowls of various dried fruits to add to them. Most places I've stayed give you two or three cereals: corn flakes and muesli, with possibly a wild card involving chocolate. Invariably, there are also individual containers of yoghurt.

The big surprise at this hotel lies beneath the second bain marie. Many hotels will provide a sweet hot dish in the form of naleśniki (crepes) with a white cheese filling. Instead, here there are these serniczki

They're translated at the table as "white cheese pancakes", but I've never seen them in this form before - they're basically little nuggets of sweetened white cheese. Either the chef here is creative, or they're borrowed from one of the nearby neighbours: Belarus or Ukraine, perhaps.

Around the other side of the table is the mainstay of any Polish breakfast: the cold meats, cheeses and breads. Even at a basic hotel where there isn't a hot dish, you'll find an assortment of these items. They often come, as you can see here, with various salad vegetables (sometimes pickled) and other side dishes.

The cheeses are a selection of fairly bland yellow cheeses, a similarly tasteless blocky white cheese, and twarożek, a soft white cheese blended with chives which is absolutly spectacular. 

It's usually translated as "cottage cheese", but it's a thousand times tastier that the dull, watery stuff I know under that label. This cheese is thick and intensely flavoured, very "cheesy" but with a distinct contribution by the chives. Great stuff.

Over in the corner, past the coffee cups and juices, is a selection of fruit and cakes. Personally I can't think of anything worse to have for breakfast, but I am notoriously without a sweet tooth. Poles do great cakes; so if you fancy cheesecake for breakfast, knock yourself out.

What surprised me to the other side of the coffee machine was this samovar. This is the first time I've ever seen a samovar at a Polish hotel breakfast, so I assume it's there for the benefit of the guests from nearby Belarus and Russia who drop into Białystok for a stay. It certainly looks impressive.

Finally, off to the left of the cakes, I noticed another first. I'd never been offered sparkling wine and strawberries at a Polish hotel breakfast buffet before, but well, why not?

It is strawberry season in Poland, after all. Can't let them go off.

Note: I paid for my own stay at the Hotel Branicki.