Sunday, 26 June 2016

Zamość - beautiful must-visit town of Poland's east

Time to de-stress, get away from the trauma of last week and seek solace in the beauty of Poland.

I've long promised myself a return visit to Zamość, which I passed through 11 years ago on business, though the visit had to coincide with a period of Mediterranean weather.

For those of you who've not been, Zamość is a UNESCO world heritage site. This is what UNESCO says about the town: "Zamość is a unique example of a Renaissance town in Central Europe, consistently designed and built in accordance with the Italian theories of the 'ideal town', on the basis of a plan which was the result of perfect cooperation between the open-minded founder, Jan Zamoyski, and the outstanding architect, Bernardo Morando. Zamość is an outstanding example of an innovative approach to town planning, combining the functions of an urban ensemble, a residence, and a fortress in accordance with a consistently implemented Renaissance concept. The result of this is a stylistically homogeneous urban composition with a high level of architectural and landscape values. A real asset of this great construction was its creative enhancement with local artistic architectural achievements."

I stayed at the three-star Hotel Senator, on Plac Solny (like Wrocław, Zamość has its main square and a 'salt square' set off it, for salt trading). My apartment had splendid views and cost a mere 240 zł (about £45 even after Friday's devaluation of the pound) for the night.

Below: the Town Hall, and the main square. By coincidence, a festival of Italian song was taking place that very evening. The stage and seating are visible to the right of the frame.

A hot day. I arrived around 5pm, it was still over 30C. And that Italianate architecture... like a real Portmeirion, set out on a grand scale, made me feel I was a thousand kilometres to the south-west.

Colonnaded walkways line the square, which is full of bars, cafes, patisseries and restaurants. The entire town is evidently well-policed aesthetically; no garish signage is allowed to advertise premises.

Left: Many people watched the concert from the steps of the Town Hall. Ticket holders sat in an enclosed area in front of the stage, but the amplification was loud enough (not too loud) to ensure that everyone in the square and the side streets could hear the songs. Italian songs attract listeners of all ages, the audience included the very old and the very young.
A magical atmosphere descended on the town. Once you leave the main square and the concert, the other streets are almost empty, I feel I have Zamość to myself.

Left: as day turned to night, the town hall was lit up. The music, provided by various tribute bands backed by a proper orchestra, was to be heard right across town, adding to the Mediterranean feeling. As did the fact that it stayed hot, around 23C at 11pm. Note the pristine walls - a zero-tolerance to graffiti on the part of the local authority.

Below: view from my hotel window at dusk...

...and shortly after dawn. I was woken at 06:35 by the chiming of bells from that church tower visible on the skyline (below).

One small gripe about Zamość was the total lack of interesting beers. All I could see was Perła and the usual Lech, Warka Żywiec and Tyskie. Not one pub or bar with craft ales, no IPA to be had. At all. Yet the Perła cost but 5zł (92p) for a half-litre; when I told the proprietor that beers can cost 20-26zł in Warsaw, he could not believe me.

Everything else being fine, if Zamość could go up-market and move with the times in terms of its culinary offerings, I'm sure it could extract more earnings from the tourists' wallets. I ordered a pizza in a restaurant on the main square called Bohema. The most bohemian beer I could order was a Żywiec wheat beer on tap, and the pizza diavolo contained ham (rather than chorizo) under the chilli peppers, cheese, and tomato sauce. Would happily pay more for something more autentico!

Below: view of Plac Solny with my hotel in the distance. My windows are in visible in the roof. Room 301, worth asking for it. Breakfast at the Hotel Senator was commendable; sausage and scrambled eggs, various salads and lots of fresh fruit.

Zamość is definitely worth visiting!

This time last year:
Voting closes in citizens' participatory budget

This time two years ago:
Beginning of the end of PO [Civic Platform]

This time three years ago:
Where's the beef? Fillet steak in Warsaw

This time four years ago:
W-wa Zachodnia spruced up for the football, W-wa Stadion reopened

This time five years ago:
Literature and biology

This time eight years ago:
Old Nysa van spotted in Grabów

This time nine years ago:
The oats in the neighbouring field rise high

Wednesday, 22 June 2016


The Brexit debate has absorbed all my emotional energy this week. Apologies for not blogging more frequently, but I have been spending my social media time on Twitter promoting the arguments for #Remain.

Tomorrow either the fabric that hold the civilised world will hold together or a small tear will appear, a tear that will grow and grow until everything we know and hold precious will be lost for generations. If Britain leaves, I think the EU will fall apart, leading to a far worse life for Europe's citizens than the one we have enjoyed these past 25 years since communism fell.

This is what it must have felt like in the 1930s, emerging from a global economic crisis, watching the waves of international and intercommunal hatred rise ever higher up towards your front door, the front door that for decades you felt to be safe.

My parents and their generation endured the resultant hell, survived and went on to rebuild a world along better lines, a Europe that for 70 years has been at peace. But the forces of intolerance and fear are on the rise, globally.

I fear too for the planet.

People with a propensity to vote for Brexit (or indeed for Trump or PiS) tend to poo-poo the notion of climate change and the idea that we should do anything about it.

If you are reading this in the UK and if you can vote tomorrow, I would implore you to vote Remain, to keep the UK as a strong part of a united Europe, united against the darkness from the East, united against climate change, united against intolerance and brutality.

The EU is no means perfect. It falls short in many departments. But it is, taken as a whole, does represent a step in the right direction along the long road from barbarism towards civilisation. Withdrawal from the EU by the UK would be the removal of a keystone that could bring the edice toppling down. Civilisation, progress, security - these are fragile things.

Talking to Poles of my age with vivid memories of how it was when the country was ruled for Moscow will tell you that the USSR and the EU are two diametrically opposite structures. I get extremely angry when people with no idea of life under communism talk about an 'EUSSR'. Where are Brussels' Gulags? The deportation of entire peoples? The use of mass starvation as a policy tool? Where's the EU's Katyń?

The killing of Jo Cox MP by a deranged nationalist, the hatred being poured out online targeting those arguing for an inclusive and tolerant future, the death threat aimed at Yvette Cooper's children and grandchildren - a sick insanity has been let loose.

If the outcome is Remain, the EU and all its institutions will need to take what happened as the strongest warning yet that it is time to reform. Time to kick out the jams. Time to communicate with 500 million citizens of its member states. Time to complete the single market - in services and in digital services. Time to get the world's wealthiest trading bloc globally competitive. And there will not be much time. If there's no evidence of reform, the citizens of other member states will express their strong desire to leave.

But the prospect of no EU in a few years time frightens me immensely. In these economically challenging times, the natural tendencies of national governments to erect trade barriers to protect their farmers, their heavy industries, their power generators, their financial sectors - is immense.

And as barriers to trade go up, so growth falls back. The spectre of autarky leads to all sorts of chaos.

Mankind has been here before. The dangers are clear.

The point of studying history is to train the mind to think beyond there here-and-now. There's a 500 year, a 100 year, a 50 year perspective behind us to help us consider the next 50, 100, 500 years.

This time last year:
Baszta - local legend round these parts

This time five years ago:
Downhill all the way to December

This time six years ago:
What do I want for Poland

This time seven years ago:
Summer holiday starts drizzly

This time eight years ago:
Israeli Air Force Boeing 707 visits Okęcie

Saturday, 18 June 2016

More Bricktorian Liverpool.

Back in Warsaw after an intensive week in England. Two days' training in London, then a visit to Liverpool with overnight stay, then two more days back in London.

I arrive in Liverpool and walk to my hotel - a converted prison. I'm spending the night in what used to be a prison cell in Bridewell Prison, now converted into a two-star hotel. It offers a level of experience that your average Holiday Inn or Ibis just cannot.

Welcome to Brictorian Britain. These four walls that surround me would have once enclosed various felons, villains and ne'er-do-wells from the city.

"Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court and it is my duty to pass sentence... You will go to prison for five years" [SFX prison door slamming]. The echoing corridors, the heavy doors, the brickwork, add an undeniable frisson to what would otherwise have been an unremarkable overnight business stay.

This used to be the Main Bridewell, built in 1857-59 to replace ten lock-ups (all called 'bridewells') located in police stations across Liverpool's city centre. A Grade II listed building, it was sold for redevelopment in May 2013 and re-opened to the (honest) public in May 2015. It's a great place to stay for the atmosphere, in walking distance of the Mersey waterfront.

As I got ready to sleep, the door locked from the inside, I pondered on the generations of ne'er-do-wells who did their porridge in this very cell, arrested by the 'busies' as Scousers call their police force. Incidentally, the Liverpudlians (or Scousers - named after the local dish of scouse - a lamb and vegetable stew) have an amazing sense of humour and natural warmth about them - probably a result of the city's geographic and genetic proximity to Ireland.

So - Liverpool, mid-June, what's the weather going to be like? Setting back from the exhibition centre towards Lime Street Station, I observed the most monstrous bank of storm cloud tipping a deluge down onto Birkenhead across the Mersey. The wind was gusting in, the downdraft from the deluge across the river. Would it catch me before I made it to the station?

 As I wrote (here and here) there's so much great architecture to see in Liverpool. Bricktorian Britain plus some stunning Art Deco.

This is, I would argue, Britain's third-best city after London and Edinburgh in terms of Things To See And Do and in terms of making a strong impression. Beating Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and Leeds.

The strong maritime history, the location and the culture, and the way the city turned itself round after years of decline and neglect and the cheerful humour of the locals make it a must-see for visitors to Britain.

Below: a slightly larger-than-life set of statues depicting the Beatles (from left: Paul, George, Ringo and John) as they would have been in the mid-1960s. The Fab Four put Liverpool on the global map, but other monuments around the waterfront remind visitors that the music scene was vibrant and varied - from Billy Fury* to Echo and the Bunnymen and A Flock Of Seagulls. The one thing I'm waiting for from Liverpool is a monument to the city's greatest comedian - Alexei Sayle.

Below: another icon of Liverpool, the Royal Liver Building, Britain's first proper skyscraper. That threatening cloud has made it across the Mersey and I'm still waiting for the deluge to come...

Below: Albert Docks, an excellent post-industrial redevelopment - shops, restaurants and apartments within a refurbished Victorian port complex.

Left: crammed into the ever-narrowing space where Whitechapel St (to the left)  runs into Victoria St (to the right) are Imperial Buildings, erected in 1879. Visible below the dome are two female figures representing Industry and Commerce. Liverpool reminds you at every turn that this is a city based on global trade.

Below: corner of Vernon St and Dale St, looking up at the ornately decorated Victorian windows and roofs.

I managed to get within a few hundred yards of it when the heavens opened. I took refuge in the Excelsior pub, and two pints of India Pale Ale later, it's dry enough to get to Lime Street to catch my train back to London. Below: looking down Dale St, the tower of Liverpool City Council's municipal offices in the skyline.

A propos of trains: the fare offered by Virgin Trains, three weeks in advance, for a single, one-way ticket for a morning train from London to Liverpool changing at Crewe, was £85. To put this into perspective, my return flight from Warsaw to London and back was £75. A cheaper alternative proved to be an evening train up from London and a two-star hotel in Liverpool. Always worth checking before booking!

* Not, of course, his real name. He was born William Furious.

This time last year:
Łódź - city of tenements

This time two years ago:
Liverpool reborn

This time three years ago:
What goes round comes around: retro is cool - again.

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's southern bypass by this time next year?
[No, it was September 2013]

This time five years ago:
Stand Easy! - a short story

This time eight years ago:
God Save The Queen - I mean it, Ma'am

Friday, 10 June 2016

Baletowa reopens as rail works move slowly on

The crossing by W-wa Dawidy station was meant to have reopened on Friday 3 June. In the end, it opened four days later, on Tuesday 7 June. By chance, I happened to be there when the barriers were taken down and cars could safely and legally cross. Below: seconds after the last barrier was removed, looking east along ul. Baletowa.

Below: this photo was taken some 90 seconds earlier. You can see the last barrier still straddling one lane. Drivers managed somehow. Note the neat, modern concrete panels on the tracks; so much better than the old level crossing. I hope that barriers and warning lights/bells will be installed. This is a very busy road and there are no warning signals, let alone barriers.

Below: What's this? An asphalt surface for ul. Hołubcowa, one of the most notorious dirt tracks that has a street name, a road that can bog down four-wheel drive vehicles? Or just a short stretch by the junction near the level crossing? We shall see.

Below: Saturday 4 June. The deadline for reopening Baletowa has come and gone, and there's still a lot of work to do. I can report that the track team was there on Sunday too, working until 4pm.

Below: while the modernisation is going ahead, the train schedules are different. The 17:05 RE8 service from W-wa Śródmieście to Skarzysko-Kamienna does not stop (for some reason) at either W-wa Aleje Jerozolimskie or W-wa Okęcie, but does stop at W-wa Dawidy and W-wa Jeziorki. This push-pull double decker is packed solid with passengers, despite having five carriages.

Below: the new double deckers don't have the opening windows that the elderly EN57 stock does. On Tuesday I was on one of these and could pop the camera out of the window to snap the situation between W-wa Okęcie and W-wa Dawidy. There are still several stretches where the new 'down' track is not yet laid - a long way from ready. Here's one such stretch, by the railway bridge over the S2 expressway. The new tracks have to be connected with the tracks on the bridge, which was opened in as recently as 2013.

And this is the southern end (as of today) of the new 'down' line that passes W-wa Dawidy (below); still a long way to go to get to W-wa Jeziorki, let alone Piaseczno or Czachówek. And when all that's done - there's the 'up' line to build.

Below: section by section, the new 'down' line extends down towards W-wa Jeziorki.

Below: risk management? Staff training? Health and safety at work? Accidents will happen, but only if you let them. Eight-wheeler dumper truck that toppled over south of W-wa Okęcie station.

And at Okęcie station, two months have passed since the completion of the passenger footbridge - it's still closed, presumably awaiting the signature of a piece of paper saying its safe. Meanwhile passengers wishing to use the station have to negotiate an obstacle course across working railway tracks.

This time three years ago:
Polish doctors in UK offer new healthcare model

This time six years ago:
The closure of the Góra Kalwaria - Pilawa railway link

This time eight years ago:
My blazing bus pic gets on front page of Gazeta Stołeczna

This time nine years ago:
Storm clouds rising

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

He was only five foot three, girls could not resist his stare...*

Wednesday morning, eight am. I arrive in Piotrków Trybunalski, on my way to speak at conference about exporting. I get ofp the train and head towards the venue. On my way, I encounter four pieces of street art that make me suddenly take notice.

Here they are: from top left to bottom right (in the order I saw them:) Pablo Picasso, James Brown, Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali.The slogan - Art makes differences.

An interesting slogan. For the native speaker of English would phrase it - Art makes a difference.

But no - Art makes differences. No indefinite article. Differences - plural.

Let's put this into context - what does Piotrków Trybunalski look like? It's a not a thrilling town, nor a dump neither. Just that regular town, the sort that dots Poland from north to south, from east to west. (I'd put in several photographs to prove the point but they'd dilute my message, which revolves around the four images above).

However, here is a town in which lives someone who wants to make a point - art makes differences. What differences? What's Einstein doing there? Making differences. In a town like Piotrków Tryb. making differences is very important.

* Can you be googled?

This time three years ago:
Quality engineering from half a century ago

This time four years ago:
Fans fly in to Warsaw for Euro 2012

This time five years ago:
Cara al Sol - part II

This time six years ago:
Still struggling with the floodwaters

This time seven years ago:
European elections - and I buy used D40

The time eight years ago:
To the Vistula, by bike

This time nine years ago:
Poppy profusion

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Preening stork

I caught this stork preening itself on its nest in the village of Pieczyska. The nest, close to the church, was low enough to get a good view standing on the pavement. I saw four other large stork's nests this weekend, but they only afforded a glimpse of the stork's head and neck.

I observed this stork for several minutes; it looks like an elderly individual by the chips on its beak and a generally scruffy mien. It looked like it was itching all over, scratching its head and neck

This did not look like a happy or comfortable stork.

As usual, Wikipedia proves invaluable. I discover at home that the European white stork "has few natural predators, but may harbour several types of parasite; the plumage is home to chewing lice and feather mites, while the large nests maintain a diverse range of mesostigmatic mites."

In the Middle Ages, people thought that storks were conceited as they seemed to be forever preening. Yet this is now known to be a reaction to parasitical infestation.

All the stork's nests I saw this weekend were on man-made platforms, built in villages to keep the storks from building their own nests on electricity pylons or other bits of critical infrastructure - a stork's nest can weigh up to two tonnes.

Poland has the world's largest stork population; around a quarter of all white European storks live here.

UPDATE: MONDAY 6 JUNE 2016 Returning home from W-wa Dawidy station via the ponds on ul. Dumki, I caught sight of a black stork. First time I'd ever seen one. Not related to the heron - it flies with an outstretched neck, nor to the crane. Black, with some white under the wings.

This time three years ago:
Preserving meadowland - UK and Poland 

This time four years ago:

This time five years ago:
Cara al Sol - a short story

This time six years ago:
Pumping out the floodwater

This time seven years ago:
To Góra Kalwaria and beyond

This time eight years ago:
Developments in Warsaw's exurbs