Wednesday, 30 July 2014

A return to the Llyn Peninsula

Very limited access to mobile networks and wi-fi, so a brief holding post for the time being - on Saturday Eddie and I arrived in Penrhos on North Wales' Llyn Peninsula for a week. My brother and his family are staying nearby. More to follow as bandwidth permits. Photos prove good weather (for now at least!)






Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Rondo ONZ One at twilight - the City Sublime

Once again - the crushed-velvet dusk in the City of my Dreams... Below: the setting sun from the 24th floor of Rondo ONZ One, looking north east across at the Cosmopolitan building on Twarda 44. Ghostly reflections of Złota 44 (left) and the Warsaw Financial Center (right).


Below: looking due west, along Prosta. Note the Mercedes logo atop the Ilbau building dating back to the early 1990s. It's earmarked for demolition; in its place will grow something higher.


Below: Going down in the lift , looking northwards along al. Jana Pawła II. I love this building - Warsaw's finest contemporary skyscraper. I hope it will soon have rivals - Warsaw Spire, for instance. Decade by decade, Warsaw's skyline rises, blocking out the Palace of Culture by mid-century (I hope).


Below: looking at Rondo ONZ One from ul. Pańska. The 24th floor, from which the top two photos were taken is less than two-thirds of the way to the top.


Below: Emilii Plater, between Złóte Tarasy and W-wa Śródmieście station. It's ten past nine and busy. Looking up the street, on the left we have the Lumen building, the Intercontinental hotel, Warsaw Financial Center and in the distance, the Cosmopolitan building. To the right, the base of the Palace of Culture.


Of a summer's eve, with a clear sky and warm air, Warsaw becomes the City Sublime, so far removed from the same city in late winter with grey snow piled up on the pavements' edges, it might as well be somewhere else. Cherish the summer while you can.

This time last year:
Up and old, familiar mountain

This time two years ago
More from Penrhos

[We'll be back in North Wales before the end of this week!]

Monday, 21 July 2014

The second Summer of Cider

Wow - cider is becoming big news in Poland. Last week in Auchan, looking for the cider among all the beers where it used to be, I saw none. "So much for continuity of supply," I thought before spinning round and seeing that amount of shelf space being used for displaying cider had doubled yet again. "Hello - what's this? It's Weston's Old Rosie! And this - what's this one? Why, it's Henry Weston's 2013 Vintage Oak Aged Herefordshire Cider. And of course Polish ciders - a novelty only last year - Miłosławski, Cydr Lubelski, Warka Cider, Green Mill, Joker.

Cider - as opposed to apple-juice flavoured beer (YEEUCHH!!!) has caught on in Poland at a pace most fast-moving consumer goods companies daren't imagine. Back in January 2013, the Ministry of Finance reduced the excise duty on ciders below 5% alcohol by volume to something approximating the duty on beer (stronger ciders are still being treated as wine, excise-wise). This gave Poland's fruit wine manufacturers like Ambra and Warwin the opportunity to change their client base from rural alcoholics to urban hipsters. At around the same time, a change in the law was made to encourage the production of artisan ciders by Polish apple-growers, though limiting production to 10,000 litres of farm-produced cider per year. The new law is so complicated in practice that out of Poland's 60,000 apple growers, only two have taken advantage of the new opportunity.

The main problem is the banderola, or excise band. By law, this has to be glued over the bottle top as proof that excise duty has been paid. A 7.8% beer is exempt from the banderola, a 4.5% cider isn't. ABSURDITY! The small, craft cider makers have to sell their own cider, duty paid, in huge containers, to bottling plants that can affix the banderola, and then buy their own product back, now bottled and banded, for further sale. And a further absurdity is that while it is perfectly legal to advertise a 5.2% beer on a billboard or on TV, it is illegal to advertise a 4.5% cider. Can a government spokesperson explain WHY?

If the Polish government were to liberalise these foolish regulations, cider-making in Poland could take off. Dozens - nay, scores of local craft cider makers would spring up, making (as they do in England), fine single-apple variety ciders, creating local employment and developing new skills and new markets. Poland - the world's second biggest apple exporter, and Europe's biggest apple grower, instead of shipping tanker-loads of apple-juice concentrate to England where it is converted to cider, could be making cider here instead. If only the Ministry of Finance would treat cider exactly as it treats beer.

Please feel free to turn this into a social media campaign!

So then - Mr Dembo's Cider Sensations for the Summer of 2014...

From Poland - Cydr Ignaców. One of the 10,000-litre limited craft ciders. Splendidly balanced, semi-dry, semi-still, this is rated as the best cider made in Poland, made by enthusiasts in Ignaców, some 15km south-west of Grójec, right in the heart of Poland's apple country. Last year's vintage is available (5% abv) in small, 275ml bottles. One to savour. Already becoming available in the UK.

Next up we have Jabcok Maurera (left). Jabcok (pron. 'YUBtsok') is a slang expression for cheap apple wine; a nice touch of self-deprecating humour on this quality product selling for 13zł. I found this one in an organic restaurant in Służewiec Przemysłowy (on ul. Postępu). This one, like Weston's Old Rosie, is cloudy; naturally-occurring carbon dioxide adds slight fizz. Stronger at 7.7%, a fine cider that captures the taste of rural cider-making in England. Maurer is from southern Małopolska, not too far from juice-maker Tymbark.

Turning to English ciders available in Poland - I must say that Old Rosie (not cheap at 17 złotys for 500cl) is excellent. One of the very best I've ever tried. Other Great British ciders you can find in Poland include Sheppy's Single Variety range (Oakwood, Dabinett and Kingston Black are three I tried; all are excellent and as different from one another as a Merlot is from a Shiraz). The Westons' ciders are imported by Kamron s.c.(www.kamron.pl), the Sheppys' ciders by BRN Services (www.ciderhill.pl).

If none of these are available, I go for Cydr Miłosławski, failing that Warka's Cider and Perry are generally available, as is Cydr Lubelski. Both Warka and Lubelski are extending their brands - Warka has launched 'Double' cider and perry (both 8.5%), while Lubelski has broadened its range of one with a honey-sweetened cider.

If Poland's restrictive regulations and excise duties on cider were to be brought into line with those for beer, Poland has the potential a) to become a big importer of excellent English ciders, and b) learn how to made excellent cider for domestic pleasure plus export to all points north, east and south!

This time last year:
North Wales in the sun This time two years ago:
Back at Penrhos

This time four years ago:
A farewell to Dobra

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Drifting south with the sun - bicycle hobo

I woke yesterday at 03:30, had a big breakfast, packed some supplies into the panniers and set off from home at 04:55 heading south. I chose that direction to benefit from a north-easterly tailwind. The route would be a mixture of tarmac and off-road, the intention to stay close to the Warsaw-Radom railway line. Sunrise was at 04:39, so it was already broad daylight as I set off for Piaseczno along ul. Puławska. Below: outside the house, ready to go. A gorgeous morning, the air full of the scent of a summer dawn, which evaporates quickly as the sun rises.


Within less than two hours I'd passed Piaseczno and Czachówek, so far almost all of the journey by road. Below: the Radomiak semi-fast train to Warsaw, approaches Czachówek. Above it, an Airbus A320 turns in for its final approach to Okęcie airport.



At Sułkowice, the next station south of Czachówek, I popped by for a baguette to go with my excellent selection of smoked meats, and a newspaper. The small village shop was crowded though it was not yet seven. Lots of building workers in overalls; in the car park were several pickup trucks with crew cabs. On the platform of Sułkowice station there were about 15 people waiting for the train to Warsaw. Things looked busy - there was still evidence of old rural Poland - under an apple tree across the road from the shop, Pan Heniek, Pan Ziutek and a friend who looked decidedly worse for wear were enjoying a round of early-morning refreshments and commenting on local events using a loud stream of expletives.

South of Sułkowice, I cross the DK50, Warsaw's de facto southern bypass, and once clear of the noise of the trucks heading east-west, I find a field in which I can have a second breakfast (ham baguette, plums, dark chocolate, lots of water). I'm surrounded by apple orchards and I watch two hares gamboling about on a neighbouring field.

On, on past Chynów. Time to go off-road. I'm zig-zagging - taking a path, crossing the railway track, straying too far from it, turning back towards it, crossing it, etc. I bypass Krężeł, Janów and Michałczew. Every now and then, the track is nicely asphalted, with a sign acknowledging EU funds and the province of Mazowsze as having contributed to the road's improvement. After a few hundred metres, however, the asphalt runs out; a road-sign warns that all good things must come to an end. Beyond the asphalt lie dirt 'roads' of varying quality; some stretches are fine on a mountain bike with fat tyres and deep tread, but other stretches yield up to soft sand - the cyclist's worst nightmare. The bike slows to a halt. You put your foot down; it sinks into the sand up the ankle. You dismount, and push the bike laden with panniers as you would over a dry, sandy beach. At walking pace, the insects, which do not bother you at 15kmh, become an annoyance. I must have walked a good few kilometres in total between the more solid stretches.

Below: one of the better stretches of dirt-track. The sand has been compacted down by cars. In the distance comes a car, trailing a cloud of fine dust behind it. But the scenery and weather compensates for the sand. I am reminded of my early childhood 'memory' of how I expected the countryside to be.


Beyond Gośniewice, I turn onto the main road for Warka, still quite quiet at this time on a Saturday morning. I make up the pace, and soon I'm passing through the town, by now quite busy. I turn onto the bridge crossing the Pilica river (below). There's a separate footpath for pedestrians and cyclists, so I can stop to take a photo. Click to enlarge - on the right-hand side of the horizon you can see one of the arches of the railway bridge crossing the Pilica. The morning remains gorgeous.


South of Warka runs the road to Kozienice. It's narrow, heavily trafficked. I feel vulnerable as a cyclist; many drivers going way too fast. I continue along the main road to Grabów nad Pilicą, then turn right towards the railway again. By now, I'm reaching the end of my fourth hour of riding, so time for more ham baguette, water and chocolate.

Left: an idyllic spot for a break. Only one komar (midge/gnat) to bother me otherwise all is good. Time to discuss the pros and cons of using a smartphone on a journey. I'm getting increasingly aware that it's a good idea to be carrying on you as little as possible. Rather than a rucksack - panniers. In here go tools, spare tyre tube, waterproofs, food, water, sun-cream, kitchen paper - everything. Not wishing to carry a half-kilo camera around my neck, I settle for my Samsung Galaxy S3 instead. It has a built-in 8 megapixel camera (my old Nikon D40 has 6 megapixels). However, it's difficult to see the screen when composing in strong sunlight. The bridge photo was taken by guesswork - I couldn't see anything on the screen with the sun directly behind me. But as you can see, the photos taken are entirely acceptable.

The other big problem with the smartphone is battery life. Fully charged at 5am, there was less than 12% charge left at midday. Because mobile telephony coverage is patchy out here in southern Mazowsze, the phone is using power to hunt for signals. Taking photos (I took over 30) also drains power, as does using the Google map facility (extremely useful when there's a mobile signal). Plus, I'm using Strava to record my ride - a very informative app, though not as user-friendly as it could be.

I reach Dobieszyn just before noon, having cycled 83.9km in seven hours, including two rests of around half an hour each. At half past twelve, a Warsaw-bound train takes me back to Jeziorki.

The line back to Warsaw is single-track most of the way up to Warka, doubling at stations. Looking at the map tracing my journey on Strava, I count that I've crossed this line (by bridge or level crossing) no fewer than 15 times.

The journey home costs me 11zł 57 gr. The ticket, bought at a splendid new ticket machine, informs me that the direct rail route is 56km. That's £2.20 for a 34-mile journey. By comparison, the cheapest ticket for a single ticket from Ealing Broadway to Tilehurst, a distance of 33 miles, will cost you £15.40. That's exactly seven times more expensive. Yet average salaries in Poland are only three times lower than in the UK. So are British trains more than twice as good?

The journey from suburban Ealing to Tilehurst, beyond Reading, takes 56 minutes, with the train stopping at 13 intermediary stations along the way. The journey from suburban Jeziorki to Dobieszyn, takes 1hr 17 mins, with the train stopping at 14 intermediary stations. Not bad, considering the appalling condition of the track infrastructure on the Warsaw to Radom line.

This time two years ago:
Royal Parks in the rain

This time three years ago:
Storm clouds over Warsaw, Dolinka under water

This time two years ago:
Round-up of pics from Dobra

This time three years ago:
Conservatism - UK or Polish style?

This time four years ago:
Wheat and development

This time five years ago:
A previous visit to London


Thursday, 17 July 2014

A tragedy foretold

Minutes after receiving a newsflash on my smartphone that a Malaysian airline flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur had been shot down over eastern Ukraine, I checked FlightRadar24.com. The area was now being given a wide berth by planes flying east-west...

Below: Malaysian Airbus A380 flight MH3 flying from London to Kuala Lumpur diverts south, presumably alerted as to the fate of flight MH17.


Below: Thai Airways flight TG916 from Bangkok to London Heathrow swings south of Mariupol before reverting to a western course once clear of the danger zone


What the world should be asking is why the civil aviation authorities did not take urgent steps on Monday night, after the shooting down of the Ukrainian transport plane, to divert passenger flights crossing east-west over this troubled part of the world.

Utterly dreadful and needless loss of human life; unspeakable pain in the hearts of the victims' loved ones.

And who fired the ground-to-air missile - and whether it was intended as a provocation.

Looks like FlightRadar24.com's server's can no longer cope with traffic.