We're at my mother's house in England now. Some people probably think our journey was a bit strange, so I'll tell you about it. The first thing to say is that we never fly. I always say I haven't got wings, so how can I fly? In fact I did fly a few times, a long time ago, but I didn't like it much. On the other hand, I've always been a great train enthusiast, and fortunately my wife shares this enthusiasm, so we travel by train wherever possible. Our regular route from Poland to England takes us through Germany and Belgium, and through the Channel Tunnel. If we're short of time we can do the whole journey in about 20 hours, but otherwise we like to take our time and stop off at places on the way - it's all part of the holiday.
This time we set off from home at about 14.00 on Thursday, got a lift to our nearest station, which is about 30 kilometres away, and caught our first train as far as Szczecin, near the German border. The next train took us to Berlin, and was a kind of historic journey in a way, because it was the last day of routine passport checks between Poland and Germany. From midnight that night, Poland became part of the so-called Schengen area, and you can now travel, for example, all the way from Poland to Portugal without having to show your passport at any of the borders.
We stayed Thursday night at a hotel we know in Berlin. There's a very cosy and welcoming bar downstairs, and every time we go there we see a man with his dog, usually at the same table every time. His main interest in life seems to be smoking - he's got a set of about eight different pipes, and apart from that he also rolls his own cigarettes. The tide of legislation has turned against smoking so fast in so many countries - in Britain, for instance, smoking is now banned in pubs, which would have seemed completely unthinkable to me just a few years ago - that it comes as quite a surprise to find such a smoker's haven. (Perhaps I should make it clear that I don't sympathise with smoking at all!)
The next stage of our journey, on Friday, was from Berlin to Cologne, where we wandered around the old town and some of the Christmas markets which are such a great pre-Christmas attraction in German towns. The temporary, but quite substantial wooden stalls are occupied by traders selling all sorts of Christmas decorations, jewellery, handicrafts, scarves, gloves, hats, toys, artwork, food specialities and, not least, spicy mulled wine to warm you up as you wander around looking at the stalls. It's all very friendly and good-natured, and although there are plenty of things you can't buy there, it's a good opportunity to buy bits and pieces to give as presents, or to keep for yourself. But there's no compulsion to buy anything, of course, and it's also just a nice atmospheric way to spend a bit of time and perhaps get into a Christmas mood.
Looking out from our hotel room the next morning, Saturday, we saw blue sky and bright sunlight glinting on the river Rhine as huge barges passed up and down. But for us, it was back on the train, this time to Brussels, and then after a short break to London, and for the first time to the new Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras. This station was first opened in the 1860s and is a monument of the Victorian era, and the great age of railway-building. The huge arched platform area was the largest enclosed space in the world at the time, and the hotel that was built adjoining the station and facing on to the main road outside is a sumptuous and intricate design with towers and turrets that wouldn't look out of place on a Gothic castle or cathedral. In the 1960s the station was threatened with demolition and redevelopment. It was saved, but over the years became more and more dilapidated and covered in grime. So it's great to see that the rebuilding process, as well as adding new dimensions, has preserved and enhanced the original structure, and revealed it in all its magnificence, with the ironwork newly painted and the brickwork cleaned to reveal all the detail.
They don't build stations like that any more - and I couldn't help comparing it with the new main station in Berlin, which is a completely new station built from scratch, and which I've used quite a lot on my travels. Both stations are full of 'retail outlets', as they call them these days - shops, cafes and other services - but the one in Berlin has, obviously, no history and seems to me like a shopping centre with platforms added, whereas St. Pancras retains something of the atmosphere of the Railway Age.
Anyway, the final leg of our train journey was to Leeds, where we arrived late last night, just in time to catch the last bus to where my mother lives. Leeds station was also substantially rebuilt a few years ago, but unfortunately it's a disaster, a real mess.
Tomorrow I'll write in reply to what Silvia's written, as well as something more about Christmas. In the meantime, here are the answers to the questions from Dec 18:
1 I was completely drained.
2 something that's always been a mystery to me
3 It's insane.
4 It's hard to resist the temptation to do something.
5 I'm a loyal customer.
6 coming across books
7 You have to stand in for someone.
8 It depends on the mood I’m in.
And here's one of the traditional seasonal symbols used on Christmas cards here - a robin. When I was a child I remember seeing them quite often in our garden in winter, along with various other species of birds - but not now, unfortunately.
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