Seen last winter beyond the Polar Circle

It has been a couple of years since I saw much snow at home. Frosty days around minus 20 degrees Celsius happen from time to time. But high snow laying on streets for longer than a couple of days is no longer common. To feel winter in winter time you have to visit a mountain resort or go deeper North.

This year it was  flying over 2000 km North beyond the Polar Circle during the Polar night season.  At midday on a cloudless day you could have seen only some warm yellow light in the South. But it was it. No Sun over the horizon. Just twilight for five or six hours. The most of the day it was nighttime. But in the Full Moon above you it was different. It was bright, but still it was dark. Kind of a weird feeling. A wolf’s night. We saw dancing Polar Light ribbons only once. But for two or three days the dark blue or deep grey sky changed its colour to green. The nature all around us with deep fjord waters surrounded by mountains was tremendous but terrifying in the same time. A kind of severe place that for ages was minded by any civilisation and barely inhabited. Below some photo impressions seen around 70 degrees North this winter.

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Cracow, one of the largest cities in Poland, formerly the royal capital city of Poland (see map). Through its history Poland had three capital cities, Gniezno, Cracow and from the mid XVI century it has been Warsaw. The Cracow old town is listed at the UNESCO World Heritage List. It combines Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Unlike the old city of Warsaw that was almost fully destroyed during World War II and needed full reconstruction (>>>), the historical city of Cracow is large and well-preserved.

To get to Cracow, we took a high-speed train from Warsaw, and spend the afternoon in the Cracow old town, enjoying architecture and good Polish food. We did not have much time, but we managed to make also a two-hour tour in the royal castle cathedral inclusive of climbing up the stairs to the bell tower to see the city panorama and at close Sigismund considered the most prominent bell in the country.

The royal castle, in medieval ages the seat of Polish kings, is located on a hill a bit separate from the old town centre, so you have to take an additional half an hour to reach it. We approached the castle hill to the left side, then entered the castle boundaries, went to the castle internal yard, and went back to visit the cathedral.


Below the castle hill. To reach the castle boundaries we turned left.


Inside the castle boundaries. The building to the left is the castle cathedral. To enter the castle internal yard we had to go alongside the cathedral to a gate (like  most of  the people on the photo) and then turn right. 


Inside the castle internal yard.


On our way back to the city. Turning around to see the castle cathedral tower. To reach the place where we started our approach of the castle hill we had to go to the left side of the photo.

The Castle Cathedral is a place were Polish kings had been crowned. It was also the main burial site for kings and prominent Poles like national heroes and poets. One of the kings buried here is Jan III Sobieski, the one who led the Battle of Vienna, decisive for stopping the Ottoman Empire to conquer Europe in the Middle Ages (>>>). The Cathedral itself is located within the Castle boundaries (compare photo above). It means to extend it (like to construct an additional chapel as a tribute to another king) one had to keep it small. The cathedral was originally Gothic, but through years it was extended with other architectural styles. So you can see Renaissance and Baroque architecture, too. The Cathedral is therefore different from those we can visit in other places in Europe. If you are in Cracow do not confuse it with the Basilica located in the main square of the old town. That one does not look very impressive from the outside, but its interiors are worthwhile. They are also different from that you can see elsewhere (unfortunately you cannot do photos inside).

Inside the cathedral tower there is a bell called Sigismund – the most prominent in Poland. Its ringing marks the most important events in the country. At present these are national days (3rd of May and the 11th of November), religious holidays (Poland is traditionally Catholic) as well as important events for the country like anniversaries or funerals of prominent Poles.


The bell is called Sigismund after the king who commissioned it. It was cast in 1520, weighs almost 13 tonnes and requires 12 bell-ringers to swing it. To see Sigismund that close, one has to climb a couple of hundred steep steps.

Many tourist come to Cracow on weekends taking trains or flying in. There are many restaurants offering Polish traditional food as well as many discos and night clubs.

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Himeji castle

Got out of the Shinkansen train. Left the Himeji railway station. And we saw it. A white castle on a hill. The view was impressive, but at first we did not realise how big this castle was. We were standing at the station exit gate, in front of a wide alley, two or three kilometers away. On the approach way already at the gate to the castle premises we had to take turns and go complicated paths between fortification walls. We crossed a series of smaller gates and baileys. At first I did not give it much thought.


But already in one of the chambers inside, as I looked through a window I realised, the castle was a widespread complex of fortifications and premises around its main keep, which we saw as we left the railway station building.

Himeji castle, although never inhabited by a shogun (in Japan: a military commander, appointed by the Emperor, with the actual power in the country till late XIX century), was in possession of the militaries. So, it was constructed to serve defensive purposes. The maze of paths between fortifications, baileys, gates and walls one has to take to get to the main keep was indeed a part of the castle defense strategy. Altogether, the castle complex consists of 83 buildings. It was  originally built in XIV century, but later rebuilt and extended several times. It got its final shape in the early XVII century. Through history its construction turned also out to be earthquake resistant.


A bit of a surprise was that every visitor was asked to take off shoes. Not surprising in Japan, as in most places you are asked to do so. But it was the first time in my life as I spent two hours in a castle walking barefoot. The system was quite simple. At the entrance (that was quite distant from the exit) we were given plastic bags, which we were supposed to carry during the whole visit. At the exit we put back shoes on and returned the bags.


The other surprise was that there was absolutely no furniture or other stuff of historical value displayed in the premises. Thus, to our disappointment we had no insights into the way how daily life looked like in the castle. Still, the castle underwent restoration work for several years and reopened to the public only in 2015. Maybe in the future some of its chambers will be equipped with furniture and objects of daily use. We shall see.

The whole fun was however about walking long corridors, climbing steps that got steeper and steeper the higher it was. The most difficult was the paths and steep stairs in the main keep. And we were not alone – there were hundreds of Japanese taking the same path. (Making photos I tried to find a spot that was not crowded, so that what you see on pictures may be misguiding).


The carpentry in the main part of the castle was very impressive. There were few separate chambers inside, only open space (contrary to the lower parts of the castle premises where there were chambers neighbouring the long corridors)We could only have imagined that while inhabited the space was divided in the traditional Japanese way – by movable panels. In some parts you even could have seen wooden rails in the floor and in the ceiling marking the chambers.


The other surprise was that what we saw in the top chamber. It was a shrine, at which many of the Japanese visitors paid their respect to a deity (or deities). (OK., we knew already that the Japanese attitude to confession was totally different from that what we were accustomed in Europe, and bigger or smaller shrines may be found anywhere >>>).


Below some other photo impressions of the Himeji castle interiors and exteriors.

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