Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Late June lightning

The new tripod proves itself in extreme conditions. At half past ten on the last day of June, we were in the middle of a most terrifying/exciting thunderstorm, which passed over Jeziorki. Two exposures make up the above image; the first was lit up by lightning from the north of us, which illuminated the estate like studio lights. The second exposure, of the sky to the south of us, caught two flashes. The tripod was so stable that the sky from the second photo could be superimposed upon the foreground of the first. And I must say, I'm rather pleased with the result.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Three hill walks around Dobra

For three days in a row (Saturday, Sunday, Monday), Eddie and I climbed to the summits of the three nearest hills surrounding Dobra - Łopień (951), Ćwilin (1071m) and Śnieżnica (1007m)

Saturday was the wettest day, the forestry tracks in the hills were very muddy; our footwear proved stout - non-slip and waterproof. Above: on our way towards the top of Łopień. Eddie proved himself very fit when it comes to hill-walking. Every so often, I'd have to break into a run to keep up with him.

Sometimes we'd follow the paths, at others, we'd head through the trees towards the highest point. In circumstances such as these, a mobile high-res GoogleEarth and GPS solution would be ideal. Common sense suggests that it's easy to find the way up (to reach summit just keep climbing until you can do so no longer); it's harder finding the right way down.

Despite the showers, it was warm. At the summit, a large meadow and a ghastly plague of flies. Below: Camera pointed up from chest-height into the middle of the swarm of flies. There was no escaping them, save a swift descent into the trees.

At least they were not biting. Some corks dangling from the brim of my Australian-style bush-hat would have helped!

The weather was better on Sunday. Above: View of the village of Jurków, with Łopień to the left, seen from the lower slopes of Ćwilin. Fewer flies today. We walked into Jurków and ordered a pizza each at the restaurant there - a mistake, as the wood-stove pizzas were so gigantic that even after a two-hour hike, we couldn't finish them. Price per pizza (depending on topping): a mere two-three quid).

Monday's walk began in the mid-afternoon, after the rains had passed. We left Dobra and headed west along the DK28 before turning right into a road running uphill, which passed this house. Then we turned left into the wooded slopes, navigating on the basis that we had to keep moving uphill. The sun beat down on sodden earth, which smelt of cow's breath.

After a steep scramble to get onto the ridge the runs along the top of Śnieżnica, the path took us through dense forests, which prevented a decent view to either side. Eventually, we reached the ski slope that we'd ski'd on in January (below), walking down it this time to Kasina Wielka. From there we continued along the railway track until we reached the DK28.

Where to stay in Dobra: Gospodarstwo Agroturystyczne Zofia Nowak (tel: +48 18 333 0117). An excellent place, excellent value for money. Please mention me when booking!

This time last year:
Naval celebrations in Gdynia

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Perfect Road Configuration

Here's my favourite kind of road; it needs to fulfill the following criteria: it must run through a forest. It must twist and turn; which means double unbroken white lines on it. There should be a steep hilly slope on either side of it, and reasonable empty of all other traffic. Smooth, no pot-holes. And the road's aesthetic should be appreciated, by taking it slowly. No rush. Above, below: roads around the Tatras.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Horse-drawn in the Tatras

Living around Warsaw, one gets the idea that Polish agriculture is modernising at rocket-speed. Cows have ear-tags, EU-subsidised farmers are finding new sophisticated markets, innovation is visible in every supermarket (just check out the varieties of home-grown tomato on offer, not to mention fresh corriander!). But here in southern Małopolska, one realises that the horse is still an essential part of farm life.

Loading the mown hay onto the cart, harnessing the horse and trotting off from the pasture to the barn, as it's been done since man domesticated the horse and invented the wheel. Pneumatic tyres and modern clothing the only visible signs of the 20th Century

The horse-drawn cart is still a very real alternative to the car or the bus for a journey into town. Forget about timetables and money for petrol. The horse is fuelled by home-grown hay and oats. On Sundays, families in their folk finery will make their way to church pulled along by the horse.

Overtaking a horse-drawn cart on a series of twisting hairpins requires steady nerves, good judgment and luck!

And its not just a Polish thing - across the border into Slovakia we encountered this vehicle labouring up the hill towards. These Slovaks have at their disposal double the horse-power of their Polish counterparts!

Friday, 26 June 2009

Poland's short on mountains, really!

I have been less than charitable about the Polish Tourist Organisation's depiction of Poland as 'land of mountains and sea'. The latter is too cold for my tastes. The former - well, if one uses the most demanding definition of the word 'mountain' in English - height above base of at least 2,500m, then Poland has no mountains at all!

Above: You may need to do a double take on this pic, looking south along the road that runs from Nowy Targ towards the Slovakian border. Rearing above the gentle undulations are the Tatra mountains. The highest point in Poland, Rysy, is 2,499m above sea level. All the peaks in the Tatras over the magic 2,500m reside in Slovakia. And my guess is (correct me if I'm wrong), that the horizon in this pic is composed of Slovakian peaks (this being taken north of Białka Tatrzańska).

Part of the problem is linguistic. The Polish word for 'hill' and/or 'mountain' is góra. Just as Polish does not have separate words for 'arm' and 'hand' (both are ręka). Yes, there are diminutives of góra (górka, pagórek), but to 'go upstairs' is iść na górę, 'go uphill' is iść pod górę. While I find it difficult to find lexicographic evidence, I feel that Poles (and let's face it, 97% of us live at less than 500m above sea level) are more inclined to be liberal with the 'm' word.

See this post, in particular this photograph*, in which the overcrowding in Poland's Tatras becomes all too apparent.

But this is not to heap disrespect on the undulating south. Poland has much in the way of attractive and interesting upland, generally unknown to most Poles and foreigners alike. From the Sudety in the south-west to the Bieszczady in the south-east, there is much excellent walking territory here. And indeed, the fact that Eddie and I have returned to Dobra in the Beskid Wyspowy for the third time in a year signifies that for us at least, there's upland charm in abundance around these parts.

*Photo by courtesy of Ewa Świętochowska

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

On foot to Limanowa

Unlike last year, where we had a wonderful surprise upon climbing the hill to Dobra Station and finding a steam train there ready to depart to the railway musuem in Chabówka, this year the rails are still. I read some months back on the Polishrail blog that the line will not be used for tourist steam specials this season and is likely to be turned into a cycle path. Above: Dobra station, nothing happening.

Heading east from Dobra, we soon come across a bridge over the Łososina river (above), certainly not a walk for those suffering from vertigo.

The Kolej Transwersalna, like many railways running through hilly terrain, offers ever-changing vistas; not knowing what's around the next bend makes the walk all the more interesting. Below: the last bend before Tymbark; two signals are still lit, although a train hasn't run over this line since January.

Below: the track straightens out before Tymbark, the fruit-juice town. Eddie shows amazing stamina; he walks at my pace and it's impossible to wear him out. On a breakfast of six strawberry pierogi and cream, washed down with a coffee and a Pepsi, he managed to cover over 20km today.

Below: Looking back towards Tymbark across another river bridge. The fruit juice company would do well to tidy up the back of its factory; it's not a good advertisement for its products.

Below: Looking towards Piekiełko (literally 'Little Hell') station, between Tymbark and Limanowa. In the window of the station building is a timetable from 2002.

Below: The line runs uphill into Limanowa, which is quite a large town, spread out over a large area. Limanowa itself is a drear town spoilt by poorly-designed advertising hoardings with a plethora of typefaces and colours. Eddie and I had a swift snack at a petrol station before taking the first minibus back to Dobra.

Below: abandoned track, between Kasina Wielka and Mszana Dolna. A nice study in contrasting textures; moss, iron, wood, flowers, stone.

A few days later, Eddie walked another section of the track, from Kasina Wielka towards Mszana Dolna, as far as the DK28 road. Together with the stretch we walked last summer, we've now covered some 22km of this railway on foot; and it's well worth it. Below: Looking back towards Kasina, the track curves across a short river bridge.

Below: the track dips down towards Mszana Dolna. Definitely worth walking this way before either the rails get lifted or train services resume again.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Kraków Air Museum

No change in the weather; drizzle alternating with downpours. An opportunity to drive to Kraków (a ghastly mistake in itself - the city, though beautiful, is the road infrastructure black hole of the country that is the road infrastructure black hole of the EU).

The museum is an eclectic mix of old Soviet aircraft that once served with the Polish People's Air Force (LWP), the NATO types that once faced them down across Cold War borders, Polish-designed gliders and sports planes and, for me the most interesting, WWII types flown by Polish airmen in the west. Above: A Tiger Moth, the British basic trainer on which most Poles flying with the RAF got their first taste of flying in. Behind it, an American Piper Cub. (Another Polish Tiger Moth photo in this post). Tripod is a must for hangar photography - huge depth of field without having to use flash. These pics all taken with aperture at f22.

Above: The PZL P 11c fighter. The plane that formed the front line air defence of Poland 70 years ago. Its magnificent manouevrability could not overcome its weedy two light machine gun armament and its low top speed (weedy engine, fixed undercarriage). Its brave pilots gave as good as they took, screwing the maximum out of the aged airframes to take a pop at the Hun.

It was only when the same pilots, who'd managed to make it to England via France, were seated in Hurricanes and Spitfires (eight guns, top speed double that of the P 11c, oxygen, radios, retractable undercarriage), did they show their true worth. They were used to having to get up really, really close to the Nazi planes before opening up. When they brought four times the firepower to bear on the enemy from that distance, they shredded the opposition.

This needs to be remembered. Polish pilots fighting in the Battle of Britain were not 'kamikazes'. They were highly skilled survivors, the best of the best, given first-rate equipment and organisation. As a result, Polish 303 Squadron had the highest kill rate of any Allied squadron in the Battle of Britain.

Sadly, the museum's Spitfire was covered up with plastic sheeting as a nearby exhibit was receiving a re-spray.

Old Soviet kit is two a penny in Polish museums. Soviet factories churned out so much of this stuff on the basis that should the Cold War turn hot, they'd need 50-1 numerical superiority to overcome NATO's superior determination, aircraft, weapon systems, avionics and ground control (anyone who doubts this should read about what happened over the Beqaa Valley in June 1982). Many Warsaw Pact junk jets grace the car parks of Poland's petrol stations, motels and roadside restaurants.

The strangest exhibit here is the world's first and only jet biplane. The is the Polish-built PZL M-15 Belphagor agricultural aircraft. Chemicals were contained in two tanks between the wings. It was not a success. To my surprise, I learn that 175 of these weird beasties were built.

Much of the museum's inventory is stored in the open air; if the collection of MiGs and Sukhois oxidises into dust, that's no great loss, but the unique stuff needs to be housed better. So we were delighted to see new buildings going up.

In the meanwhile, the entrance to the museum is a muddy track full of huge puddles. Below: Eddie attempts to get back to the 'car park' (mud by the side of the road).

A good day out despite the weather and the awful traffic into and out of Kraks. Tickets (5zł children, 7zł adults, nothing extra for photography) are extremely cheap - too cheap in fact; a bit more on the ticket price could go into more effective protection of exhibits.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Dobra in the drizzle

It's been the wettest, dullest June since we first arrived in Poland. Eddie and I have returned to Dobra, a place we've come to feel very much at home in. We reach Dobra on Sunday evening, the longest day of the year. We should be celebrating midsummer, but there's little cheer in the weather.

Above: The Łososina river is swollen, though still metres away from bursting its banks. We hear that year by year, the water levels in this river have been falling.

Walking around Dobra waiting for the weather to clear. No chance says the TV weathergirl - the sunshine will arrive on Saturday. Drizzle gives way to rain; then the rain relents and is replaced by drizzle. Exactly like North Wales in July.

We return to our guest house (highly recommended, our third stay here in 12 months) and do something we almost never, ever do - watch television.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

In search of decent Polish beer

The Polish breweries are now mostly foreign owned. SAB Miller, Carlsberg, Heineken have snapped up the big brands and dominate the market. The few surviving local independent breweries have fallen on hard times.

The beers that are readily available tend to be sweet and heavy like a late-August afternoon; sunny, humid, with more than a hint of thunder, plenty of fruity smells in the air. Gone are the Polish beers that reminded me of British Light Ales and Pale Ales (remember those?) before the UK market went under a tide of taste-free fizzy lagers. (Thank God for real ales, however; but the saving grace of British brewing is to be found in Poland only in the largest urban hypermarkets and specialist shops, with beers from Shepherd Neame, Youngs and Fullers imported by John King).

Żywiec gives me dreadful headaches. Tyskie, which used to be a reliable tipple, is now little different to Lech, which to me tastes like a suspension of dust in sugary water. Warka is dreadfully sweet. Beers I liked have disappeared - Okocim Zagłoba, Heweliusz, Dojlidy Magnat.

So it was with a measure of optimism that I tried Okocim Premier Pils, recommended by my friend Krzysztof. Same old story - too sweet. On Saturday I came across something called Grand Imperial Porter - very dark, good head, strong - but ruined by what tasted like half a sackful of sugar added to it.

I conclude that sweetness is a measure of the Polish beer-drinking demographic - young and very young. The predominance on the market place of young beer drinkers has shaped the taste of the nation's ales.

Wherever Poles take their beer, there's always large plastic bottles of fruit syrops about. If an Englishman asked for a large dash of raspberry syrop in his beer, he'd be considered effeminate, to put it mildly. Here, you'll see many a shaven headed, bull-necked type knocking back the Tyskie, the Zywiec or the Lech discoloured by syropy, sugary goo.

The beer companies have not been slow to spot this, and have launched their own sugary fruit-flavour concoctions - 'beers' like Redd's, FreeQ, Gingers. And mainstream beers have become sweeter. New launches, like the 'English style' beer 'Dog in the Fog', posing as a 'smooth beer' (thinks draughtflow beer like Boddingtons), turn out to be ghastly in taste. Even the much-praised Perla from Lublin, said to have a strongly hoppy flavour, is actually quite lacking in hops. If you like hoppy beers, try the German Jever pils.

And so after 12 years in Poland my quaff of choice is not Polish, but Czech - Pilsner Urquell.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

They're building a house

Slowly, mercifully slowly, and individually, the fields around our house begin to fill with houses. On Thursday morning I spotted some activity in the field next-but-one to us, indicating that work has got underway on what will be the seventh house start in our immediate vicinity since we moved here in 2002. At this rate, it will take decades for Jeziorki's housing density to reach that of suburban London.

Above: The land has been cleared, and is ready for the builders. The fences are going up. Below: Within two days, trenches for the foundations have been dug and the cement is being poured.

The aim of any house builder will be to have the structure up and enclosed by the winter. The most expensive and time-consuming part, fitting out, can drag on for years.

Friday, 19 June 2009

School's out for ten weeks

Apologies for lack of postings recently, but life has been hectic in the run-up to the end of the school year. This coincides with a busy week at work, and getting ready to depart for Dobra with Eddie on Sunday.

Above: Eddie and Moni en route to their respective schools for the last day of the school year. Eddie's taking flowers for his teacher, which is customary in Poland. Flower shops are doing great business today.

Above: Your hair is a mess! Big sister enforces a well-groomed look on her long-haired layabout brother. The following day Eddie was taken for a haircut. Despite my wishes, he did not emerge from the salon looking like a Marine. Next time, mate, you're going to Wojskowa Jednostka Fryzjerska Nr.189* in Radom for the Polish equivalent of a sixpenny all-off, not to Ivi Point to have each hair artfully shortened by two centimetres.

The previous day saw the end-of-term school talent contest. The Crumfel is no longer; only Moni (bass) Oleńka (guitar, above left) and Hubert (drums) remain from the original line-up but they still practice regularly and write their own songs.

Sadly only covers tonight, including an entirely competent rendition of Dave Brubeck's jazz standard Take Five, better known by Polish TV viewers as the music from the Łomża beer ad.

School's out for ten weeks and one day. One fifth of the year. This is far too long. An article in last week's Economist says that American scientists claim that children forget about a month's worth of learning during their long summer break - 'summer learning loss'. American school holidays vary from ten weeks to three months (!) depending on state and school. In the UK it's a mere six weeks off.

This time last year:
Jeziorki in midsummer
Antonov An-12 over Jeziorki
God Save The Queen!

*Fictional Polish army barbers' unit

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Czachówek junction

A day later, I returned to Czachówek to take some snaps of the junction. I arrived in good time to photograph the Pilawa-bound train we took a day earlier (above) as it turns off the Radom line onto the Skierniewice to Łuków line (PKL line no. 12, which runs west to east). Just once a day does an east-bound passenger train come this way.

Above: From the forested triangle of land to the north of Line No. 12, a photo of a Warsaw-bound train. Standing here, I am aware of trains moving through the forest in all directions; I can tell where they're coming from, but not where they're going. Below: One of the most interesting trains passes this way, the Vltava, the Moskva Belarusskaya to Praha Hl. n.* service comes through Czachówek (some time after 6pm).
This exotic, one-a-day service, which takes 31hrs 23mins, leaves Moscow at quarter to midnight local time, goes through Viasma, Smolensk, Orsha, then through Belarus stopping at Minsk, on into Poland, calling at Terespol, Biała Podlaska, Łuków, Pilawa, Włoszczowa, Katowice and Zebrzydowice, before crossing the border into the Czech Republic, and arriving in Prague just after 5am. Surely one of Central and Eastern Europe's great train journeys.
The return train* passes through Czachówek around 9am each morning on its way back to Moscow. These trains are made up of Russian, Czech and Polish carriages and (for the Polish stretch) are hauled by Polish EU07 or EP07 electric engines. The gauge changes at Terespol, where broad-gauge bogies are swapped for standard gauge ones.

Meanwhile, within the forest at Czachówek junction, I can hear the rumble of yet another train. It's heading my way, but will it swing north or continue east? It's a CTL Logistics tanker train, and it carries on straight, down the line to Pilawa and Łuków.

Above: The Skierniewice-Łuków line, looking east. Built in the early 1950s, it had, as any infrastructure investment did in those day, a primarily military purpose - getting Soviet tanks west, bypassing Warsaw, that nest of potential spies and saboteurs. Today the line is under-used, at least the new Warsaw-Góra Kalwaria-Pilawa service will put some of this track to good purpose.
The line's history is fascinating, told here (in Polish). At a time when Stalin was planning to goad the west into war in Korea, building this 100-mile strategic military rail connection of was of utmost importance. No other piece of railway infrastructure investment in Poland, other than the electrification of the Warsaw-Katowice line, was given greater priority during the period of the Six-Year Plan.
(* a dead link means the timetable's changed or the service no longer runs)

Friday, 12 June 2009

Jeziorki to Jeziorki via big local rail loop

As I mentioned earlier, once a day a Koleje Mazowieckie train passes through W-wa Jeziorki on its way to Pilawa, via Czachówek and Góra Kalwaria. Eddie and I decided to go for a Dad'n'Lad rail excursion and do a full loop, returning to Jeziorki from Warsaw, to which we'd get to the other way from Pilawa. Above: 18:20 - our train arrives. The heavens are about to open.

As we reach the junction at Czachówek , it starts bucketing it down. The deluge means we had to quickly shut the windows to avoid soaking the train's upholstery. Above: behind the trees is the east-west rail line that our train will merge onto.

Beyond Góra Kalwaria. For the first time, we cross the Vistula on a scheduled rail service on the Skierniewice-Łuków line. Above: Eddie's shot of the rainbow (it came out better than mine!) Circular polarising filters really help with rainbows. In the distance, the Góra Kalwaria road bridge is visible.

The landscape on the other side of the river is as flat as it is in our part of Mazowsze; the rainbow accompanies us much of the way to Pilawa. We stop at three stations between Góra Kalwaria and Pilawa: Warszówka, Osieck and Jaźwiny; there are no platforms here, just a white-painted kerb at ground level. At each station, just one or two people descend. Remember, this is a new service, so locals still need to get used to its existence. Currently, only two trains a day stop at these stations; from Pilawa to Warsaw (between 4:40 and 5:00) and from Warsaw to Pilawa (between 19:30 and 20:00).

Above: approaching Pilawa from the west, through the forest that runs through Augustowka, a favourite place of ours. There is a significant railway junction here, with five lines converging on Pilawa station; from Lublin to the south, Łuków to the east, Mińsk Mazowiecki to the north, the Otwock-Warsaw commuter line to the north-west and Skierniewice to the west. The forest is criss-crossed with rails, and an overgrown embankment after track-lifting. I refer to it in this oft-visited post.

At Pilawa, we buy tickets for the express train to W-wa Wschodnia, Warsaw's eastern terminal. Above: The 19:49 Przemyśl to Warsaw service is about to reach Pilawa. The 50km journey to Warsaw goes the long way round, not through Otwock and Józefów but skirting Mińsk Maz. Though there's more rail to cover, the train moves quickly and there's no intermediate stops. We are scheduled to arrive at W-wa Wschodnia in just 47 minutes. Here we will board a stopping service bound for Radom, that will drop us off at Jeziorki.

As the train turns west at Mińsk Maz, we catch some strong evening sunlight. The thunderclouds and rain have passed over, the air is clean and fresh, the quality of light beautiful.
Approaching W-wa Wschodnia. Above: A panorama of Warsaw's city centre, still dominated by Stalin's gift to the Polish people, appears ahead of us. Clicking on the photo, you will see on the Palace of Culture, five miles away, an image of Gary Cooper, 11 stories high. This is based on the iconic 'High Noon' poster used by Solidarity to encourage Poles to vote the communists out of power 20 years ago.

Above: We've changed trains (a hectic dash from Platform 1 to Platform 6 at Wschodnia) and are crossing the Vistula again. Looking south from the railway crossing towards the Poniatowski bridge, which carries road traffic and trams. Eddie remarks that there's something about rail travel that cannot be beaten going by road. We ponder for a while, but can't quite define that something that makes going for a train trip for its own sake so special.

Standing at W-wa Służewiec station, I take this shot of ul. Sasanki flyover (above) as it crosses ul. Żwirki i Wigury. This is the site of the future junction with the S79.

Home again, after three hours. I set up a long exposure shot on the tripod as our train heads south for Radom. Total cost of journey, Eddie paying half price, was just under 45zł, which relating to Scatts' post about value-for-money anorakism, works out at around three quid an hour for real quality time. Below: Map of our journey (click on it for detail).

Planning this journey was made much easier thanks to PKP's timetable site, found here.