Friday 22 February 2019

The Mysterious Mounds of Kraków, Poland

When I lived in Kraków in the 1990s I was fascinated by the four monumental mounds - two of them very old - which were dotted around the city. 

Years later I revisited the Polish city and wrote this piece about them for a newspaper. As the article has since vanished from the Web, here it is again for your reading pleasure...

When catching a taxi from the airport into the old medieval heart of Kraków, Poland, I glance up to see a curiously pointed peak to the west. It looks man-made, and so it is.

This enormous 34 metre high earthen mound was erected by volunteers in the 1820s, in honour of the 18th century Polish war hero Tadeusz Kościuszko.

Kościuszko’s name is no stranger to monuments - it appears on streets and landmarks across Poland, where he once led a peasant army to victory against a better armed Russian force; and in the USA, where he was a hero of the War of Independence.

His name was also given to Australia’s highest mountain, courtesy of Polish explorer Count Strzelecki.

The Kościuszko Mound is a fascinating landmark, and not unique. For the attractive historic city is blessed with four such monuments scattered about its suburbs: the Krakus, Wanda, Kościuszko and Piłsudksi Mounds.

The two oldest - Krakus and Wanda - are the most fascinating, simply because so little is known about them. They predate Polish history and it seems they’re not burial mounds, as no remains have been found inside them.

Legends link them with Krakus, the legendary founder of the city, and with Wanda, a queen who sacrificed herself to save her country.

If they were erected as monuments to great leaders, then the Kościuszko Mound is a worthy successor to these ancient predecessors.

It’s visually impressive, sitting atop a hill and encircled by a massive red-brick fortress built in the 1850s by Kraków’s then Austrian rulers (the above photo is of a model of the property). The grassy conical mound, encircled by overlapping trails, is itself held within a circular brick wall liked to a series of bastions facing the city.

As I ascend one of the walking trails up the mound, which curve gently in cobblestone arcs up its slopes, I can see what a prestigious position Kościuszko’s memorial commands.

From the top, there are views that take in forest and the sprawling Błonia, a medieval meadow that’s now a popular recreational space. In the city’s Old Town district is the massive bulk of Wawel Castle, once the home of Polish kings; and in the distance is a suggestion of the enormous communist-era steelworks of Nowa Huta.

Moving from the sublime to the, well, cheesy is the display of waxworks tucked away within two floors in the old fort. They’re arranged in static scenes depicting famous Poles of the past, including Kościuszko himself in consultation with his American commander-in-chief Jerzy Waszyngton (better known as George Washington).

After leaving the war heroes behind, I stroll past various moustachioed literary and political achievers including interwar leader Jozef Piłsudski, who is memorialised by the fourth mound in the nearby Las Wolski woods. Then I under a low arch to discover the late Pope John Paul II stepping out of a cutaway section of an aircraft.

I end my mound visit at the open air cafe located on the ramparts of the fort. It’s set with colourful flower boxes, with the beautiful city laid out below.

With beer in hand, I think of Kościuszko. He may not have finally prevented the 18th century conquest of his country by its neighbours, but he gave it a damn good try; and bequeathed us this fascinating monument.

The Kościuszko Mound is located at Al Waszyngtona 1, Kraków, Poland. For opening hours and entry fees, visit its website.

Friday 15 February 2019

Thai Toy Story: The Toy Museum of Ayutthaya

On a 2012 media tour to Thailand I declined to join a group riding bicycles through the very hot streets of Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok. Instead, I investigated a toy museum I'd heard about.

As the story is no longer available online, I'd like to share it here. Enjoy!

I have an idea for the next Terminator movie: a cohort of tin robots marches across the earth, its colourful leaders backed by dozens of troops arrayed in black armour, with bulging red eyes and little looped antennas on their heads.

At least, that’s what I see when I look into one of the many glass cases in the Million Toy Museum in Ayutthaya, Thailand – and if there’s a better place for such a wild flight of fancy than a building packed with toys, I’d like to know about it.

The museum is the brainchild of children’s book writer and illustrator Krirk Yoonpun, an avid toy collector.

When his collection of toys got out of control, he built a new home for them in Ayutthaya, the former Thai capital which was sacked by the Burmese army in the 18th century.

The city is now famous for its extensive and evocative ruins, making this celebration of children’s modern playthings a delightful surprise.

The museum presents a lively, colourful contrast to the busy streets around it. Set back from the road in a lush garden dotted with salvaged horses from fairground carousels, the two-storey blue and white building resembles a massive wedding cake, light and airy but also a substantial presence.

There’s something fairy-tale about the place – as if Hansel and Gretel’s witch had decided she fancied a warmer climate, and set up shop in Thailand.

Not that there’s anything sinister about the interior, which is crammed with tens of thousands of toys. Soft toys, metal toys, superhero models, dolls – they’re all here, often in multiple copies for artistic effect.

Near the entrance I find a case containing 55 tin goldfish swimming side by side, and another case holds numerous toy helicopters whose yellow rotors resemble a forest of windmills.

I’m amazed at the diversity as I walk among the displays: toy trucks with transparent red plastic cement mixers on their backs, tin cuckoo clocks, tiny tanks, soft toys, baby-sized dolls in scary dead-eyed profusion, and miniature rockets and planes stacked next to each other.

Not that it’s all about 20th century playthings – upstairs there’s a case of centuries-old figurines, unearthed by archaeological digs among the ruins of old Ayutthaya.

Near these there’s a life-size figure of Superman and multiple copies of a character I later identify as the Japanese superhero Ultraman (thanks Twitter); but in this crazy colourful jumble, nothing seems out of place.

As I return to the ground floor, it occurs to me that toys often reflect the technology of the era they’re constructed in.

A case in point is the set of model locomotives about 30 centimetres long, painted in bright colours and with moving pistons.

I love the look of these, and jokingly tell museum attendant Napat he should search my satchel on the way out. He takes me semi-seriously, which just goes to show how good an observer of human nature he is.

I smile as I realise this museum is affecting me in a way I thought it never would – the sheer quantity of toys is enveloping me in the warm embrace of nostalgia.

I owned those tin robots when I was a boy, which seems like a million years ago. They were great.

The Million Toy Museum is located at 45 Moo 2, U Thong Road, Ayutthaya, Thailand.

Friday 8 February 2019

Clueless in Kraków

To paraphrase the old TV crime show Dragnet: "Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to read is true. Not even the names have been changed to protect the innocent." 

Yes, the following events really happened to Narrelle Harris and me in 1994. 

I wrote it up for a newspaper some years ago; but as that account has disappeared from the Web, here it is again for the record...

“We have here the homicide.”

These aren’t words you want to hear while you’re travelling overseas.

Nor do you want to glance over the shoulder of the man who’s just spoken them, to see a pile of bloody surgical gloves and the body of your dead landlord in the living room.

Your absolutely stark naked dead landlord.

Narrelle and I were taking some time out from the blur of travel. To replenish our funds, we’d taken English teaching jobs at a private college in Kraków, Poland.

This was just a few years after the fall of communism, and housing was generally cramped and expensive, but we had been lucky enough to land the top floor of a house. We lived up top, our landlord and his elderly father lived below.

One chilly evening in November, we returned from work to find a police car at the end of the street, and people swarming up and down our stairs. Strangely, our mental alarm bells didn’t sound. "There's been a domestic," we figured, and headed on up.

Stopped at the first landing, it was quickly established that neither of us spoke much Polish. Thus the immortal words mentioned above, followed by the interesting sight of a deceased naked body whose modesty was covered by a small cloth. How thoughtful.

Thinking about it now, I don’t think the city’s finest had anticipated the arrival of a couple of clueless Australians on the scene, and were unprepared to deal with this twist in the plot.

It was also quite unreal for us, like an unfathomable foreign cop show without subtitles - CSI: Kraków. Our thoughts shifted between horror, pity, curiosity, and concern that the unreliable heating system would never be fixed.

A policewoman who spoke reasonable English turned up at 11pm. She translated while two men went through a few of our cupboards which contained some of the landlord's possessions.

They seized an old address book, and a business card for something called "The Viking Club". Now this was more like the movies. A Nordic connection, maybe? A cartel of ruthless reindeer rustlers, or gangsters trying to smuggle horned helmets past Customs?

Then they left, requiring our presence at the police station the next day.

Arriving bright and early, we surveyed a dreary brick building that looked just the sort of place that difficult suspects disappeared from. And we’d had had no chance to rehearse our stories. Would we be tripped up on our links with the exclusive but shadowy Viking Club?

We gave our statements. Of course, we knew nothing, and had visions of the cops tearing up the pages in disgust after we left.

Well, that was sort of that. I’d like to tell you we resolved to make up for our cluelessness by becoming fluent in Polish, brandishing our magnifying glasses and tracking down the landlord’s killer no matter where he had fled to.

No bolthole would be safe, no refuge secure for this heartless criminal once we vowed to hunt him down. No, not even the headquarters of the Viking Club.

But it was not to be. We never had to give alibis, fingerprints, any of the exciting stuff. And with the passage of years, the disturbing incident has faded to a point where it seems like the plot of an unconvincing and meandering foreign film.

If only we’d been blessed with subtitles.

Friday 1 February 2019

Stirred, Not Shaken: The London of James Bond

In 2008 I visited London and attended a James Bond memorabilia exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, entitled For Your Eyes Only. 

To flesh it out into a travel feature, I then arranged to join tour guide Simon Rodway's on-demand James Bond tour of Mayfair and St James.

I met Simon [pictured right] a few times over the years after that, taking his 2011 tour about the history of the area around the new Olympic stadium, and corresponding about other matters. 

We got on well, so it was a shock when I discovered last year that he'd passed away from cancer in 2015; you can read his obituary in The Guardian.

As a tribute to Simon's memory, here's the account of his James Bond tour I wrote up in 2008...

Simon Rodway of Silver Cane Tours is a one-man walking tours company, an agent with a licence to stroll. Among his repertoire of walks around the British capital is The London of James Bond, though it focuses more on the life of author Ian Fleming than his fictional creation.

“I don’t know if many people read the books now,” says Rodway as we meet outside Marble Arch tube station, pointing out the author’s work has been overshadowed by the cinematic James Bond’s adventures.

As a result, the walk through well-to-do Mayfair and St James gives Rodway an opportunity to highlight the connections between Fleming’s lesser-known life and the literary 007.

Starting on Park Lane, we head into Mayfair, passing the house where Fleming was born. After that, we pass by Grosvenor Square, home of the American Embassy, a surprisingly hideous concrete fortress.

It’s not hard to imagine spymasters and their agents meeting in this neck of the woods during the Cold War days. In fact, forget the Cold War – Rodway points down the street to the hotel where Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with a radioactive substance in 2006.

A stop outside the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve club prompts Rodway to speak of Fleming’s wartime role and the way it planted the seeds of James Bond in his mind.

Particularly influential was Fleming’s role as planner for an elite unit of commandos who specialised in intelligence gathering.

According to Rodway, the author was also inspired by Sydney Cotton, a Queenslander in the RAF who was well known for his technical brilliance and innovative gadgetry.

Cotton may well have been the author’s model for Bond’s gadget man ‘Q’.

We stroll through Berkeley Square, beneath its attractive plane trees, to the Fleming Collection.

This family-owned art gallery usually showcases the work of Scottish artists, but today is hosting an exhibition of Bond novel covers from around the world, as part of the the centenary of Fleming's birth. It’s a striking visual reminder of how far and wide 007 has been received over the decades.

As we pass from Mayfair into St James, Rodway mentions an old saw: “St James for the gentlemen, Mayfair for the ladies”.

It’s true that St James Street has a certain masculine identity, with solid, dignified buildings housing gentlemen’s clubs like Boodles, of which Fleming was a member.

It also contains a series of shops outfitting said gentlemen with handmade shoes, fine wine, and hats.

There's even an outlet of Italian firm Beretta, a name familiar to Bond fans as the first gun favoured by the secret agent. There's no sign of weaponry through the ground floor windows - only clothing – but Rodway tells me there’s a gun shop upstairs.

Finally, we reach Dukes Hotel, a tasteful establishment discreetly tucked into a side street.

There's an elegant restraint about the hotel’s decor, its cocktail bar featuring low blue velvet chairs at small circular tables.

It’s a cosy refuge, much favoured by Fleming as he sipped cocktails here, chatted to the waiters and devised the famous line “shaken, not stirred”.

Intriguingly, our waiter, a tall white-jacketed Italian from Elba, tells us firmly that their signature Bond-related cocktail should be stirred, not shaken.

Apparently the agitation would spoil the flavour of the vermouth in the Vesper, a martini devised by Fleming for the first Bond novel.

He then proceeds with a flourish to make the concoction at our table, pouring from vast frosted bottles of Beefeater gin and Potocki vodka from Poland.

It’s a potent brew, a strong, bitter cocktail for sipping rather than gulping, served with style (and some tasty green olives).

“This bar was where Sean Connery came in 1961 when he’d landed the movie role, for one of these babies,” says Rodway, holding his cocktail aloft. “Then Pierce Brosnan followed in 1995.”

As I sip my Vesper, I decide I'd rather be a hero than a  Bond villain. Heroes don't get to take over the world, but they do enjoy the better drinks.