Holiday in Siberia

Isn’t it a shame that now we have an opportunity to travel almost anywhere in the world, increasingly when we get there it’s just the same world as the one we left? I’m just back from a four day break in Krakow which, as far as European cities go, I suspected might be a bit different from the usual modern metropolitan experience that sees a McDonalds and an Starbucks on every corner. Please note that I’m not saying that I “hoped” Krakow was a bit different from every other city across the world in that respect. I like my home comforts, and sometimes that includes a good dose of globally branded outlets and hotels. But I did hope that Poland had retained an old world charm that corporations hadn’t fully snuffed out yet. Well, “yes and no” was the answer.

In terms of differences, I liked using the Zloty and my “cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and mince in a tomato sauce” was more satisfying in a number of ways than a Big Mac, although I knew this wouldn’t be the case every day. The centre of town was picturesque for sure, but it was bordered by McDonalds, Costa Coffees, United Colours of Benetton and the like. The underground bar and cafe scene was a bit different, but I suppressed a groan at hearing Coldplay playing over the speakers in the Black Gallery and what, exactly, were Polish pubs doing selling Grolsch and Heineken anyway? Their own beer is far superior. 

I liked the old Jewish Quarter in the city where, thankfully, Starbucks hadn’t arrived. Yet. But on the other hand the old coffeeshop/bookshop concepts felt just like that: concepts. Coldplay were absent, but only because they hadn’t ousted Dylan.

What has this got to do with early retirement I hear you ask? Well, at the top of the list of a lot of early retirees is the desire to travel and see a bit more of the world. To be fair, I’m noticing a couple of bloggers are acknowledging that this ain’t necessarily so, and that whatever it is they’re looking for might not be found on a Goan beach, the Australian outback or upon an old Patagonian Express. These travellers tend to be more the “long haulers” in terms of both time and distance, however, and I’m thinking more about those that are planning fewer, shorter breaks nearer to home. That weekend in Gothenburg or Pisa perhaps, taken on the ultra cheap Easyjet and Ryanair tickets on a Tuesday afternoon and maybe returning early Saturday morning on a half empty flight? Snaffling up some cheap hotel deals when the weekenders are missing and the businessmen are in the Hiltons and Marriotts?

Ha! Easyjet and Ryanair don’t do half empty flights, or not for long anyway. Bums on seats is what they’re about and they’d rather not fly at all as put up with three quarter full ‘planes. The probability is that you’ll be going City breaks on a full flight or you won’t be going at all.

Meanwhile the hotels are at a similar game. Occupancy is what they want and they’ll drop their drawers on price to get it. I booked my hotel through Hotels.com about four months ago and our friends, booking two weeks ago, got in for almost half the price we paid and were upgraded to a suite! Of course they risked not getting in at all, but luck and the algorithms were on their side. Either way the hotel is doing what it has to do: sell rooms. That’s ALL their rooms, every last one, and the internet helps shift them on a global scale. We think sites like Trivago are there to benefit us, and that’s true, but I’m beginning to suspect they benefit the hotels more. York has about three mid-budget hotels being built as I write, so the projected demand is clearly there. And increasingly full ‘planes arrive from across Europe to fill them up.

If Krakow is anything to go by, the future of city breaks in Europe is going to guarantee one thing: everywhere is going to be mobbed full of fifty and sixty something tourists. (And, of course, millennials). That includes your continental breakfast where you’ll be queuing with ten other grey-heads for a coffee out of an increasingly exhausted machine.

Krakow was unbelievably busy with tourists, but I travelled via Edinburgh which made the former town look like a dust bowl. I know it’s The Fringe, but ye Gods, doesn’t it portend badly when millions flock to the city desperate to find some “experience” that they hope will brighten their Tuesday? The Fringe is shit, take it from me. Not that I’ve ever been, by the way, I just find the whole concept to be shit. If I saw one “comedy” poster with a smart arse quip about Trump, I saw ten. Every comic sported a beard, including the women, and I wondered why they bother advertising with a big picture of themselves? Is their appearance one of their stronger jokes?

As for the theatre types, they are worse than corporates. They strut about Edinburgh wearing their backstage passes around their necks like they’re something to be proud of while the newly under-unemployed arts degree graduates wear “Road Crew” T shirts with the same smug expression I sported at their age when I wore a “Solidarnosc” one. But at least I wasn’t yapping down an iphone as I strutted the streets. Honestly, I couldn’t get out the place fast enough.

You might not have guessed it, but I did enjoy my weekend break. This, however, was because I felt I was learning lessons and building my mental retirement database, helping to shape my post-work dreams into more focus. Frequent city breaks abroad, I feel, have dropped down the priority list and I’m thinking more about farther flung and more isolated places. I’m going to be heading far from the madd(en)ing crowd, where the streets really have no name and the biggest brands are those that are burnt on a cow’s arse.

Siberia, anyone?

22 thoughts on “Holiday in Siberia

  1. I’m just back from 16 days in Finland, 4th holiday of the year so far, 6th week away. Finnish schools had gone back and it was very quiet, very pleasant. Going to spend this week catching up in the garden. FIRE means you spend weeks away, not weekends, and you have loads of time to plan and recover. Only a shame the timing meant I couldn’t do the same as retired friends who watched the eclipse at the start of 2 months in the American West.

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  2. Well said.

    Yes, Krakow—and every other mid-size or larger city, it seems—now has the H&M next to the Mango next to the Starbucks next to the XYZ….they all DO seem to the be the same place.

    That’s why you have to get away from the cities. At least for a little bit, to feel like you are someplace different from home.

    (BTW, the worst offender of all is London, IMO. You can hardly find a difference from neighborhood to neighborhood, as all of them have the Pret a Manger next to the Itsu next to the Jamie Frickin’ Oliver’s next to the Wagamama next to the H&M, etc.

    EVEN WORSE: I can hardly find a pub that has not gone corporate to Tennett’s or Fuller’s—I may be getting some of the names wrong—-but the bottom line question is : WHERE HAVE ALL THE MOM AND POP STORES GONE???

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    • London is pretty awful in that respect, but I still like their pubs! However, your comment reminds me of Bill Bryson’s complaint that we Brits would stick an advertising sponsorship on our gran if we thought it would help sell something. True.

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  3. These sort of ruminations bring to mind The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton – a really good reflection on why we travel at all. I found it a good companion on a recent trip to the Czech Republic, as I wandered around Unesco world heritage sites teaming with tour groups from the four corners of the earth.

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    • There was a book I read once about a guy on a motorbike touring Europe, where he ended up going to The Potato Museum somewhere in Eastern Europe just to relieve his boredom. I felt all aspiring nomads should be made to read that chapter!

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  4. effort, imagination and the ability to take rough with smooth required if you want to surpass ‘tourist’ status

    ‘tourist is as tourist does’ as forrest gump would say

    those underground bars linked with tunnels are pretty cool though right?

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  5. A little disappointing hearing about Krakow since that is near the top of my list of places to visit. I do revel in even the small differences between my home and anywhere I visit, even with the chain stores. But the last three big trips we took have been Peru, Thailand, and Japan, and those were fabulous. The rare times you do see an American chain in those places, what you find on the inside is not what you expect.

    Usually we travel with frequent flyer miles, but I took the bait and bought a ticket on one of the bargain basement flights from an odd airport near my home directly to Bergen, Norway. And it’s in February. Hoping I’m not a sucker with that one.

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    • Don’t get me wrong, Krakow is still worth a visit and is different enough that you notice. Norway? The flight may be cheap because it will need to be. The cost of a taxi into town from the airport would probably buy you a ‘plane in some countries!

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      • I often wish I was Norwegian – everywhere else in the world would be wonderfully priced

        I spent some time in Oslo a few years back and the cost of living was breathtaking. Thankfully it was courtesy of her majesty so I didn’t have to worry too much.

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  6. Some friends and I have been going to different towns around Poland for the past decade. Krakow was certainly the most touristy and had the most expensive accommodation. There are plenty of alternatives with quaint market squares and quirky pubs: Poznan, Wroclaw, Torun, Gdansk, Szczecin. I even like Warsaw and Lodz! There are probably fewer flights from Scotland though. (Polish accents missing from these names.)

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  7. The growth of multinational brands, the internet, cheaper flights and the spread of tourism from the wealthy west to the rest has certainly made much of the world seem less remote and exotic than before unfortunately.

    Even as relatively recently as back in the early 90s most places were very untouristed compared to today. No cash machines, internet, mobile phones or even reliable international phone services. Postcards and aerogrammes were the main form of communication with people at home. Back then I thought Thailand felt busy with tourists but there were about 5 million compared with 35 million today! In many parts of South America other tourists were so infrequent that we would invariably end up chatting and going out for a meal together when we crossed paths. To experience this today you will have to pick more obscure destinations such as parts of Africa or Russia for example.

    The other thing I notice is the effect of the internet. Before the internet and all its manifestations such as Youtube, blogs etc. people didn’t know much about the rest of the world. As a foreigner you had a bit of an air of mystery. That has been lost.

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  8. Siberia : I’ve actually been there ( Kamchatka peninsula to be precise )
    I can absolutely recommend it for those wo like wild nature. No tourists masses either, and a good glimpse of the real rural Russia.
    You will appreciate living in the West after that experience !

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