Travel, mental health, and me

I’ve tended to steer away from writing about personal subjects on my blog lately, but for World Mental Health Day I want to write about travel and the impact it’s had on my mental health.

This year I’ve travelled more than usual and even lived abroad for a couple of months. After a couple of years in which my mental health has been very poor on occasions, I was a little apprehensive about being away from my GP and any help I might need. In the end, everything has worked out OK.

I mostly travel alone, which I enjoy because it gives me the freedom to choose where I want to go, to set my own budget, and do the activities I enjoy without having to think about what someone else wants to do. I used to think that solo travel would be quite lonely, and I think it has the potential to be so, but I’ve met people through staying in hostels, going on walking tours, and even chatting to the person sitting next to me in the cafe. Loneliness is a big problem for society as a whole, and not just for older people.  It’s hard to connect with others sometimes. Being away from your normal environment can amplify that, but others are in the same situation and are keen to make friends and have a chat.

My favourite part of the year has definitely been the time I’ve spent in Krakow and Ukraine. Being there had a very positive effect on my mental wellbeing. Before I travelled there my mind was too much focused on a situation that had happened in my recent past. I was worried about the situation and the person involved in it returning to my life in some way. Over there, my thoughts were preoccupied with understanding words written in Cyrillic and communicating in my extremely basic Ukrainian. And when I’d arrived in Krakow I’d been amazed by how familiar the city seemed, almost like I’d been there before. My thoughts there were mostly of food, beautiful buildings, and finding as many Saint John Paul II memorials as possible. There was no room in my mind for dwelling on the negativity of the past and allowing it to spill over into the present.

In the next couple of months I’ll be travelling to London (not solo but with a good friend yay) and I’m planning to walk part of either the Camino de Santiago or the Via Francigena next year. (The idea of the Via Francigena came out of a conversation with a lovely Liverpudlian guy I met in Bilbao).  I’ll also be making my yearly trip to Poland. Travel is something that I enjoy and have come to appreciate it as being hugely beneficial to my mental health. I’ll always make room in my budget for trips away.

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Saint John Paul II memorials in Krakow

One of the surprising things I found on visiting Krakow was the amount of memorials and statues dedicated to the memory of the former Pope (now Saint) John Paul II. Or perhaps it’s not that surprising; he was the first non-Italian to have been head of the Catholic church since the early sixteenth century, and is the only Pope to have come from Poland. He’s an important figure in the country’s history, and is very much loved by the people.

20190829_102317Statue of John Paul II at Wawel Cathedral. He celebrated his first Holy Mass in the Cathedral, on 2nd November 1946.

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Kanonicza Street, Krakow. He lived on this street from 1951-1963

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Plaque showing the location of one of the houses in which he lived in Kanonicza Street 

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Statue of St John Paul II in Strzelecki Park, Krakow

 

Armenian Cathedral, Lviv

This cathedral was founded in the 14th century by Armenians who came to Lviv. It’s said to have been modelled on the cathedral in the ancient Armenian city of Ani. The cathedral originally belonged to the Armenian Catholic Church but some time after the collapse of the USSR it was handed over to the Armenian Apostolic Church.

I came here twice; on my second visit I really took time to look around at the beautiful frescoes on the walls, which are the nicest I’ve seen in any of the churches I’ve visited.

The Armenian Cathedral is small but very much worth visiting.

High Castle, Lviv

(Spoiler alert: there’s no longer a castle here. Judging by TripAdvisor reviews, some people are disappointed by this)

High Castle was built in the 13th century, and was ruined somewhere between the 17th and early eighteenth century centuries. I went on an evening walking tour of Lviv to see the city by night, and especially the stunning views from the High Castle.

On the way to the top we stopped at a newly-constructed memorial to the Heavenly Hundred Heroes, who were murdered by snipers during the Revolution of Dignity. (In a little side note, a few of the tour guides have recommended the film Winter on Fire, a documentary about the Revolution, which is available on Netflix. I haven’t watched it yet but will be doing so once I get back to the UK)

There are steps to the top of the hill (my guide told me there are 365 although I didn’t count) and beautiful views once you arrive at your destination. It’s definitely worth the climb.

I enjoyed my trip to High Castle so much that I’m planning to go back in just so I can experience what it looks like in daylight.

Yard of Lost Toys, Lviv

This quirky little place is one of the more unusual attractions I’ve visited recently. I’d spent most of the day exploring churches, so this was a change of scene.

The Yard of Lost Toys began when a nearby resident found some toys that had been left behind and decided to keep them in case the owners returned. As no one came back to claim the items, the collection of lost toys began.

I was expecting something a bit haphazard, with toys randomly strewn around, but as you can see from the photographs the space is tidy and well organised. Some of the toys are arranged in groups on the ground, and there are some on shelves and windowsills. It’s very well done.

The Yard of Lost Toys is roughly a ten-minute walk from Rynok Square. It’s definitely worth visiting if you’re in Lviv.

Slow travel

I definitely don’t approach travel the same way I did at the start of this year. Between 11th January and 11th February I visited Wroclaw, Prague, Brno, Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna and Paris. That’s 7 cities in 6 countries. In one month. For some people, that would be fine. Some people love fast-paced travel. But I’m not one of them. That’s ok, because everyone has different preferences when it comes to travel.

I’m currently spending a month in Poland and Ukraine. I spent a week in Krakow and a week in Kyiv, with the majority of my time in Ukraine being spent in the Western part. On this trip I’ll have travelled to 4 cities in 2 countries, also in a month. I feel like this suits me better; I have time to fully take in my surroundings and also factored in time for relaxation when it all gets a bit too much.

I know slow travel isn’t for everyone, but it’s important to find a pace of travel that suits you and to realise it’s OK to travel at your own pace, whether that’s fast or slow.

Travelling by overnight train in Ukraine

One of my goals for this year was to take a sleeper train in Eastern Europe. I’d never travelled by sleeper train before although I have taken an overnight bus 3 times which I don’t think I’d do again. However, the sleeper train was a much nicer experience and one I’d be happy to repeat.

My journey took me from Kyiv to Ivano-Frankivsk. I booked a bed in third class (platzkart) which is kind of like being in a dorm room that’s moving. It’s also the cheapest option (it worked out at less than £7 for a ten-hour journey).

I arrived at the train station in Kyiv in good time and waited patiently until the platform number was announced. I then went down to the platform with everyone else, and soon after that the train arrived. My mum and I had been watching Chris Tarrant’s railway journeys in Eastern Europe on TV, so I had an idea what the trains look like, but it still felt exciting to see it in real life. I got on the train along with everyone else and found my seat, and after everyone had got on the attendant came round to collect the tickets. I had booked a bottom bunk, but swapped with the guy in the seat next to me as he was travelling a shorter distance. The top bunks fold down and there’s a mattress and pillow stored on the top shelf. I didn’t bother with sheets or a blanket because the train was so hot and there was no air-conditioning (not a complaint as it was clearly specified in the booking email that there wasn’t any).

Once I’d put the mattress and pillow on the bed I climbed up, put my stuff on the top shelf and settled down for the night. I kept my valuables under my pillow. I’d read that if you’re on the top bunk your stuff is safe on the top shelf because someone has to climb over you to get to it, but then I also read about someone who had their valuables stolen from the top shelf, so I figured it was better safe than sorry.

I wasn’t expecting to get any sleep but the bed was quite comfortable and I didn’t have any problems nodding off. I woke up a few times, and eventually found it impossible to get back to sleep. By that time the we’d almost arrived at our destination. Everyone started to get up, put their beds away, and gather their belongings. Shortly after that the train arrived in Ivano-Frankivsk and my first overnight train journey was over.