Saturday, 30 June 2012

Despondency on Puławska

The greatest single impetus to Poland's transport infrastructure is over. What's built is built. I travelled out of Warsaw's Okęcie airport on the new train again today - fantastic it is; frequent departures, brand new rolling stock, informative signage. Gdańsk has a new airport terminal. Warsaw and Kraków are connected via motorways to western Europe.

However, the promised links to the east remain unfinished. There are still no motorways linking Poland's major conurbations with Belarus or Ukraine; Lublin and Białystok still lack international airports as well as motorways to Warsaw, and despite new trains and modernised stations, Poland's rail network is largely deplorable by western standards.

Above: Węzeł Marynarska, where the S79 will join southern Warsaw's existing road network, linking Mokotów to the S2 and onto the A2 at Konotopa. Looking westwards from W-wa Służewiec station. The work here is going on at a rapid pace. There's a huge hole in the ground along the route of the S79 near the airport that needs filling in, but otherwise, I see no major engineering or bureaucratic challenges ahead on this stretch.

Above: this is where things look tougher; Węzeł Puławska (węzeł= 'junction'), where the S2 will one day run over the top of Puławska and onward to the Belarusian border. This is a complex piece of engineering, with a tunnel, roundabout and viaduct all needing to be built, plus slip roads.

Above: the biggest problem, however, is what happens when the junction's built. There are currently no plans to do anything beyond ul. Puławska. In theory, a tunnel needs to dive down under the tower blocks and greenery to the right of this picture to emerge around the Vistula escarpment. Another bridge then needs to take the S2 across the river, and more expressway must then be built to connect the bridge on to the Mińsk Mazowiecki bypass. In practice, budgets are tight, a road above the ground will be fought against by residents. So for the time being - the viaduct being built here will be a classic bridge to nowhere.

Above: a broader perspective. I'm an optimist by nature, but I can't see the S2 being extended eastwards of Puławska for some time to come - barring a successful bid by Poland and Belarus to jointly host the 2026 World Cup. Which does beg the question - why bother building the viaduct at all? Why not end the S2 at Puławska and leave the pillars as monuments to over-ambition?

Puławska is an economically significant artery leading into Warsaw. It needs bus lanes in both directions; ZTM boss Leszek Ruta told me that a bus lane along Puławska will not happen until this junction is complete. This would suggest that commuters living south of here will continue to waste dozens of hours each working week for the foreseeable future.

It is time to call a spade a spade, recognise that taking the S2 over Puławska is an exercise in futility, finish the expressway here, with sliproads, roundabout and tunnel - paint on a bus lane and do it all quickly. And forget about linking Warsaw with our rather nonsensical eastern neighbour.

This time last year:
Stalking the stork

This time two years ago:
Bike ride along the Vistula

This time three years ago:
Late June lightning

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Football goes home

Well, that's it for Poland as host nation - the last match in the Euro 2012 was played in Warsaw tonight, an event that even for someone with absolutely zero interest in football (or indeed any spectator sport) was tinged in sadness at its ending. For playing host to the championships has proved a huge civilising step - not only in the delivery of sports, transport and hospitality infrastructure - but in those intangible changes in mindset that such events engender.

Above: floral rainbow, consisting of 16,000 artificial flowers, spanning the middle of Pl. Z(a)bawiciela. Tolerance, man. Will this structure become a permanent part of Warsaw, like the palm tree on Rondo de Gaulle'a? What will happen after the pigments in the plastic flowers start to fade? Replace or remove?

Above: with the sun in the north-west, a view of Pl. Z(a)bawiciela with the floral rainbow. To my eye - not too bad a composition. What do you think, dear reader?

Left: This German fan encapsulates all that's best in the tournament. Friendly, non- aggressive, patriotic but not chauvinistic - here for the football and the beer.

I guess everyone (including the Financial Times) expected a German victory tonight and a German victory in Kiev. It's a shame that Poland didn't get to host the final, still, there's not been any vocal criticism of Ukraine's role in the championship other than rip-off prices (by Ukrainian standards).

Right: Italian fan, across the road from the stadium. While I've not watched a moment of the football, I must say it was worth it, the nay-sayers were proved wrong, and on balance Euro 2012 has served to propel Poland forward in development by three to five years.

Other than some unsavory scenes after the Poland-Russia match in Warsaw, the whole show went by relatively peacefully. This is in part the result of good planning and coordinated intelligence gathering, based on (I can now reveal) the monitoring of mobile phone conversations between rival groups of hooligans trying to arrange a time and place for pitched battles.

The Polish media will labour this point, but going back to late 2007, there were many voices of woe saying it will be a disaster, it will never happen, Poland will be compromised and embarrassed. Have a little faith!

Time to mark a more personal moment - today my parents celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. Hip-hip, hurray! Sto lat, Babcia Marysia and Dziadzio Bohdan!

This time last year:
Birds of Omen

This time two years ago:
Yes, it does matter who you vote for

This time three years ago:
Poland could do with some more mountains

This time four years ago:
Warmth of the Sun
- the Beach Boys and Noctilucence

This time five years ago:
Polish roads that look like America

Monday, 25 June 2012

Zachodnia and Stadion

Time to get out and revel in the fact that what was once Poland's Worst Railway Station has, in a remarkably short space of time, become civilised at last. There's nothing like tight deadlines to focus a management's mind. Racing to complete Dworzec Zachodni on time, I'm sure some short cuts were taken, but by and large the difference for passengers travelling from (or more likely, changing trains at) this station is immense. New platform shelters will be appreciated, but above all it's proper, electronic signage. On each platform - and most importantly (below) in the underground passageway connecting the platforms.

On each platform you can see the destination of the next train. This had been Zachodnia's greatest single mankament - lack of any information at platform level pertaining to train arrivals. Having been through commuter hell at this station, with people rushing from one platform to another, not knowing from which their train would depart, or at what time, this is a mighty step forward, and I salute it.

Below: The booking hall on the other side of the tracks to the main entrance has been spruced up. Though tiny by comparison to Centralna or Wschodnia booking halls, it has been renovated thoroughly to the same standard.

A further PKP improvement is to be found on the online timetables ( If you're looking for times of trains arriving imminently, you'll see whether or not they're forecast to be running to time. Click to enlarge. You'll see the green ticks by the next two train times, showing that these two services are not currently experiencing delays. This system is still being tested, but will be of huge benefit to travellers.

Did I hear right? The native-English station announcer at W-wa Rakowiec saying that the train for W-wa Lotnisko Chopina airport is due to leave at sixteen colon oh one? [siedemnasta dwukropek zero jeden]?

Below: first post-remont visit to W-wa Stadion station. Three years ago a dump that all right-minded people would avoid, today a place that generates pride among Warsaw's citizens.

From outside the station there are well laid-out paths to the stadium and to Al. Zieleniecka from which trams and buses can take you into Praga beyond. So much has changed, so quickly, to the surprise and delight of Varsovians, most of whom doubted that it will be done on time.

This time last year:
What's the English for Tężnia?

This time two years ago:
Literature and biology

This time three years ago:
Kraków Air Museum

This time four years ago:
Crumbling neo-classicism in Grabów

This time five years ago:
Little boxes, Mysiadło

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Is this the future of urban motoring...

... Or is this merely a Class 4 mobility scooter? This is the Renault Twizy (how do you pronounce that? Twigh-Zee? Stupid name, but anyhow...), on display at Warsaw's Okęcie airport. If only it could overcome the kneejerk reaction of people saying it looks like an overblown electric wheelchair, this concept could revolutionise urban transport.

Most car commutes in cities are of less than 15 miles (25km) each way. Why deploy a tonne-and-half of steel powered by a two-litre fossil-fuel engine to drag a 80kg adult into town? If pedalling to work's too much hard work, you don't want to share public transport with the plebs and you're scared of motorcycles, this could be ideal...

The Smart has gone a long way to make small city vehicles acceptable, although Top Gear insinuates that using a small vehicle to get around means you're less than 100% heterosexual.

I fear that the price of petrol and diesel needs to rise significantly before your average Varsovian can be winkled out of his or her four-wheel drive commutemobile. Apologies to those who need spacious Land Cruisers to deliver sides of beef to restaurants or pots of paint to the house they're doing up, but frankly, one-per-car, short-distance commuting is as sociable as allowing your dog to use the pavement as a toilet.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Motorway links outskirts of Łódź and Warsaw

To the surprise of many observers of infrastructure development, the A2 from Stryków (17km north of the centre of Łódź, debatably Poland's second city) was opened through to Warsaw's western periphery (12km west of the centre). Officially, not opened, but 'declared passable' to cars and light goods vehicles (to 3.5 tonnes). The two controversial sections that the Chinese contractor Covec was meant to build but didn't were very nearly completed in time, lacking just a top coat of bitumen.

So then. To Łódź I drove today with Eddie to pick up Moni's things as she finishes term at the film school. The first navigational problem was where to get onto the new A2 if you are coming from southern Warsaw. As regular readers know by now, the S2, which will take the A2 through the capital's southern suburbs and on to the Belarusian border and thence on to Moscow, is nowhere near ready. There are two choices - head south-west towards Pruszków and pick up the A2 there, or head west towards Połczyńska and join the S8 and swing down towards the A2 at Konotopa. We took the former route out and the latter one back, both are absolutely sub-optimal but mercifully short compared to the old roads to Łódź. For once on the motorway - wonderful.

Above: The sign says Warszawa. We've just got onto the A2 at Stryków, and a hundred kilometres of new motorway beckon between here and ul. Półczyńska, a little to the west of Warsaw's city limits. Photo by Eddie, by the way.

The two 'passable' sections had speed limits of 70kmh/43mph and were noticeably bumpier than the completed bits. Having said that, 70kmh was a bit, restrictive; 90kmh would have been more reasonable. Police cars patrol the stretches to ensure motorists abide by the limit; on the way back we laughed as a foolhardy chap in a black van towing a trailer overtook a column of obedient drivers in slow procession behind a patrol car. He swung out into the fast lane (the A2 is a mere two lanes each way) and charged past the policemen at 120 or so. Predictable response - the police speed up, everyone behind the police speeds up, blue lights are applied, the van driver's hauled over to the side of the highway.

The new road uses the path of the abandoned Olimpijka motorway, which was meant to be ready of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Once a photogenic 'road to nowhere', the old ghost viaducts and overgrown carriageways have all gone, and sadly I never got out to photograph them myself. Still, there are many pics on Google Earth and elsewhere (look between Bolimów and Wiskitki).

Right now, the A2 is a joy to use; not much traffic (picture at the top reflected most of the journey) and no tolls (there will be two toll-gates on this section when the motorway's ready). But a turn-off at Węzeł Konotopa for an S2 to take traffic eastwards (at least) to Puławska is sorely lacking. And there are no services open on the Stryków-Konotopa section, so make sure you don't run out of petrol!

Even so, it's progress; driving home from Łódź today took me two hours, compared to the four hours it took at the beginning of term before the A2 was opened. The completion of the S2 will shave a further 20 minutes off the time.

A fuller description of the road, its good points and bad points, here, on the Politics, Economy, Society blog.

Midsummer's eve in Edinburgh

Edinburgh, Wednesday 20 June. Midsummer eve. It's ten pm and broad daylight! Below: the Royal Scottish Academy seen from the junction of George Street and Hanover Street; beyond it New College and beyond that, the spire of The Hub.

Below: statue of George IV, on the corner of George St and Hanover St.

Below: statue of William Pitt the Younger (who, at the age of 24, became Britain's youngest prime minister), on the corner of George St and Fredrick St.

I spent Midsummer Night in the best value for money accommodation to be found in Scotland's capital - Edinburgh University's Pollock Halls of Residence (outside of term time). I paid a mere £28 for a single room with breakfast. This is about £100 cheaper than any other central Edinburgh hotel - highly recommended. Below: Chancellor's Court, a baronial-style building now surrounded by 1970s architecture.

Left: the view that greeted me on Thursday morning - Arthur's Seat looming out of the mist above the university buildings.

Breakfast was a bit of a rush; starting at 7:30, there was already a long queue of hotel guests standing outside the refectory at 7:15. Once it opened, it proved admirable with handling a vast number of guests - hundreds of them - much faster than a hotel. Breakfast was fabulous - full Scottish - beating breakfasts south of the border hands down. Bacon, sausages, Stornoway black pudding, fruit, cereal - everything. And service with a smile - after breakfast, I was hovering around the clearing area with a mug of hot coffee; the cleaning lady could see my dilemma - I was in a hurry but my coffee was too hot to drink - so she offered to fetch me a paper cup to pour in into. Such customer service - based on human understanding and kindness - cannot be taught. I can say that I've experienced this a few times in the UK, but sadly, never in Poland; taking the initiative to anticipate customer needs will take a generational shift to introduce here.

This time last year:
And the Lord spaketh unto the Tribe of Hipsters

This time two years ago:
Poland's presidential elections - knife's edge

This time three years ago:
In search of a good Polish beer
[I must say the choice is much better these days!]

This time four years ago:
In the Solstice garden

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

On Jarosław Gowin and leadership in Polish society

The meeting we organised with Jarosław Gowin last week will stay with me for some time - he made a deep impression on me and on several other UK-born Poles and British ex-pats. Poland currently has three strong, respected Anglophiles in the key 'power' ministries - UK born and LSE-educated Jacek Rostowski (finance), Oxford-educated Radek Sikorski (foreign affairs) and, since last autumn, former Cambridge scholarship student Jarosław Gowin (justice). [Compare this the PiS coalition line-up of Gilowska-Fotyga-Ziobro].

Anyway, Mr Gowin was speaking about his reforms, with a focus on reforming the court system. Indeed, the entire Polish legal system is dreadfully slow and essentially self-serving. Like many other parts of this country's bureaucracy, it is a self-perpetuating caste extracting its rent from the wealth-generating part of the economy. For the last 23 years nothing much has changed - indeed, the caste has become more entrenched and harder to reform.

Notaries? Why does the nation's economy need them at all? The UK doesn't (other than for international transactions). Why do you need someone to witness you signing your signature (which exists in your biometrically verified passport)? Commercial courts? Why do you need a judge to decide whether or not you can set up a limited liability partnership? Who's the other party in this case? KRS - what a waste of space. Compare the Polish system with the efficiency of Companies House (which employs 1,030 people - how many work in the Polish commercial courts system registering companies? Over a thousand in Warsaw alone, according to one lawyer). And then compare the UK Land Registry with its Polish court-based equivalent. A court, with a judge, to carry out a simple administrative function of noting change of ownership of real estate?

For too long Poland's politics have lacked leadership - to tackle the przyzwolenie społeczne (social acceptance) of a bloated rent-taking caste helping itself to the fruits of the free enterprise and offering precious little in return. Many university professors fall into this category - clinging onto their tenureships at the expense of real innovation and still teaching by rote.

Changing this? Most politicians I've met in Poland are in themselves nice-enough people; but too many are simply free-riders, using their God-given charm, drive and oratorical skills to schmooze their way to an easy-life parliamentary career. Ryszard Kalisz, for example. Nice enough guy - as a youth, he joined the Socialist Union of Polish Students; a member of the Polish United Workers' Party from 1978 until its dissolution in 1990. Drives posh cars. Still a leftie, committed to redistributing wealth. "Vote for me, and I'll give you the rich man's money" is his subliminal message. This type of politician has no interest at all to bring about the real change that Poland needs if it is to be more competitive internationally. The vested interests must be taken on and beaten.

For the last 10 years, I've sat through scores of Polish politicians' speeches. Smooth-talking self-serving hypocrites or well-meaning incompetents, mostly. A handful stand out - and thankfully - these are the guys who run the place - Messrs Rostowski, Sikorski, Gowin (as mentioned above) - Michał Boni in Internal Affairs, Elżbieta Bienkowska at Regional Development.

Listening to Jarosław Gowin was a revelation. Here's a man who's challenging my deepest assumptions - about a life in balance, avoiding stress, healthy diet, good books and movies - no, he is saying. Not the time to take it easy - not just yet. There is a job to be done. A task in hand. To get our nation working properly. To kick out the jams. The rent-taking restricted professions, determining who can get into their gang so as to extract a livelihood by providing second-rate services for laughably high prices, must be challenged.

[I must say though, I do have some sympathy with taxi drivers. These guys, paying astronomical prices for petrol, offer an excellent service compared to Poland's notaries, bailiffs, estate agents or customs agents.]

Leadership is not about a wódz or duce or fuhrer that will lead One Nation to Greatness. It is about individual people standing up for what is right in society - demonstrating leadership through politeness, sobriety, hard work, courteous driving - contributing, rather than demanding entitlement.

After our meeting with Mr Gowin, many - quite cynical, heard-it-all-before, seasoned Poland hands, were of the opinion that here is the Conservative's Conservative - a market liberal, but a social, Pope-quoting, conservative - who could be that One Nation leader, unifying that bulk of Poland that might once have been POPiS had it not been for the splitter element of the nationalist-statist tendency. I've never heard it before after such a meeting - but four people I spoke to after the event talked of Mr Gowin in terms of a future premier. Another view of the same meeting here.

(Take a look at public-sector rent-taking in Brazil, here.)

This time last year:
Death of a Polish pilot

This time two years ago:
Doesn't anyone want to recycle my rubbish?

This time three years ago:
End of the school year

This time four years ago:
Midsummer scenes, Jeziorki

Monday, 18 June 2012

Warsaw southern bypass: this time next year?

Assuming you're driving a vehicle weighing less than 3.5 tonnes and are prepared to drive it at speeds below 70kmh/43mph, yes, you can drive from Łódź to Warsaw along a motorway, which was opened in time for the football. But no, the Łódź-Warsaw motorway does not, as yet, connect up with Ursynów, Warsaw's southernmost suburb. How long will we have to wait?

Judging by the picture below - a long time. The S2 expressway, Południowa Obwodnica Warszawy ('Warsaw Southern Bypass') needs to drill its way under the main Warsaw-Radom railway line. Work started recently; since then, two-thirds of one viaduct has been laid (the easy one - the coal train line, without overhead cables). The final third will be slid into place when ready (to the left you can see the trestles on which the viaduct sections were fabricated). Then the soil between the pillars needs to be cleared, and asphalt laid. Repeat for the middle (electrified) line, and again for the westernmost (electrified) line. If this is ready by this time next year, I shall nourish myself upon my headwear.

Below: the future coal train bridge seen from what will one day be a bridge carrying the Radom line over the S2.

While one viaduct is being laid, the railway line that will run over it is diverted onto another line (below). This shot actually is a bit of a trompe d'oeil as the Koleje Mazowieckie train only appears to be on the coal train line; it's swinging around the island platform at W-wa Dawidy station. Nevertheless, three lines are squeezed onto two while the viaducts are under construction.

Below: the view from the current end of the S79, which comes to an abrupt halt south of Węzeł Lotnisko junction (węzeł = 'knot'). Beyond the cabbage fields, Dawidy, Dawidy Bankowe, Zamienie, Zgorzała... and somewhere beyond the DK79 connects Warsaw to Sandomierz and Kraków (the slow way). When will the S79 connect with the DK79 (or S7 Radom-Kielce-Kraków expressway)? It will be years after the S2 southern bypass is ready.

Below: my favourite moan - the viaduct carrying ul. Poloneza over the S2. It was meant to be ready in December 2010. It's still being 'worked' on - five chaps talking it done over tea and sandwiches this morning. A classic road to nowhere; the viaduct peters out in a muddy field and does not connect to ul. Ludwinowska. Why bother building it in the first place?

Below: looking down from Poloneza viaduct onto the S2. Prefabricated sections are lined up, ready to form the viaduct over ul. Puławska. Sometime. Don't hold your breath, Warsaw. Now the football's (almost) finished (just two more matches left at the Stadium Narodowy), there's really no incentive to finish the job. Stretch it out boys, there's no more roadwork once this contract's finished.

Noteworthy is the contrast between traditional acoustic screen (on other side of the expressway) and concrete cylinder wall on this side. Filled with soil, the cylinders will become a natural habitat for greenery and I'm sure that before too long the concrete will disappear under leaf and branch. To me, a better solution that a glass acoustic screen that will soon be covered in graffiti.

This time last year:
Stand Easy! - a short story

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

This time five years ago:
Legoland, Dawidy Poduchowne

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Russia's going home

Not being in the least bit interested in football, I'm looking at the Euro 2012 championships through a prism of economics, transportation - and yes, patriotism. It was a sad day for Poland yesterday - something that became palpably visible today in the shops; subdued people, no laughter; the woman reading out the special offers at Auchan announced 50% off all Euro 2012 merchandise in a sombre voice reserved for the death of a well-loved statesman.

If it was sad for Poland it must have been galling for Russia - knocked out by a single goal by country that can't get its economic act together and threatens to tear down the very fabric of the European Union.

So - the 20,000 Russian fans are heading home - extra trains, extra planes laid on. At Okęcie excitement for the spotters - aircraft not normally seen over Jeziorki airspace. Below: Airbus A330 VQ-BCQ, in SkyTeam livery. Registered in Bermuda. Or on Bermuda. These little islands... one never knows whether they're large enough to count as 'in'...

Below: Transaero Boeing 737-400, EI-DDY. This Russian airliner's registered in Ireland (an island large enough to be 'in' not 'on' - in Polish 'w' rather than 'na'.

Poland and Russia, Denmark and Holland out - who's next? Tomorrow and Tuesday will settle the remaining groups. England will only get to play in Warsaw if they beat Ukraine and France loses to Sweden - unlikely.

This time five years ago:
Sun and zenith rising

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Night train tips

Poland's night-train network is a national treasure. I'd say 'use it or lose it', but it is well used, and my recent journeys have been on night trains running with their sleeper carriages full. These are operated by Wars, (pron. 'Vahrss'), the same company that does restaurant carriages on Polish trains. Wars S.A. is 49.98% owned by the Polish state treasury; the remaining shares are in the hands of PKP Intercity S.A., which is 99.99% owned by the PKP S.A., which is 100% owned by the state treasury.

There are essentially two types of sleeper carriage - Wagon sypialny - three-berth (second class) or two-berth (first class) accommodation, with washing facilities en suite; and kuszetka (couchette) which offers six-berth accommodation and a wash-basin and toilet at each end of the corridor. The former assumes that the passenger will disrobe and sleep, pyjama'd, under a blanket and sheet; the latter that the passenger will lie down clothed. The former are segregated by sex, the latter are mixed.

Price-wise, the kuszetka is cheaper. PKP Intercity's Tania kuszetka ('Cheap couchette') offer is a mere 25.50 złotys to anywhere in Poland; the berths come with a disposable sheet to lie on and nothing else. The full-price couchette costs more (depending on distance) but you'll get proper sheets, pillow and blanket. If you're intent on the Wagon sypialny, don't forget to ask the conductor whether there's a parliamentarian travelling that night - if not, the compartment may be free - for a small consideration.

Above: second class, three-berth, compartment in a wagon sypialny carriage. Note the washbasin, window blinds, coat hooks and hangers, shaving mirror cabinet and made-up bedding - all these facilities are lacking in the kuszetka carriages. Top bunk just as hard to access in both type of sleeper carriage.

Whichever option you choose, as you board, do not be surprised that the conductor will want to take your ticket from you. There is a point to this. He must wake you half an hour before your destination, so he needs to know to where each passenger is travelling. He will assign your ticket to a board with your berth number, and wake you up in good time for you to alight, say, at Poznań at 02.40 or Szczecin at 05:50.

Bottom, middle or top bunk? The physical effect of heat rising is noticeable. The bottom bunk can be cold while on the very same journey the top one stifling. On top, you are not troubled by the comings and goings of lower passengers; once up there, all is peaceful (though hot). The downside is getting there. It's over two metres to your bunk; there's an extendible ladder to help you, though getting to it and making your way down it with a full bladder at half-past three in the morning is the other major drawback of the top bunk.

It's like being on the International Space Station, though with the additional inconvenience of gravity. You cannot sit up straight; you need the skills of a potholing contortionist to wriggle through the straps that are there to prevent you falling off the bunk should the train run headlong into another. There's plentiful storage space (above the corridor) for the top-bunkers.

The earlier you buy your ticket, the higher the likelihood of a bottom bunk, as the computerised system sells the tickets from the bottom to the top. Tickets for the sleeper carriages are on sale up to two hours before the train's departure. Should you turn up late, you can buy a normal ticket, and ask the sleeping carriage conductors (one per carriage) if they have space, and pay them for the sleeper ticket. And the Tania kuszetka offer runs out, so you must pay more than double (although you do get sheets, a blanket and a pillow - the Tania kuszetka ticket will say bez pościeli - without bedding).

I must add that travelling in a sleeper carriage is safe. There's a conductor in each of the two or three carriages that make up a night train, and your cabin door can be secured from the inside with a chain.

* Varsovians - you should board your night train at the station it departs from. This gives you time to settle down in your berth before W-wa Centralna, where most of the passengers will join the train. Westbound night trains start from W-wa Wschodnia (or 'East Station', as PKP announcers now helpfully call it), while eastbound night trains start from W-wa Zachodnia ('West Station').

This time last year:
On a musical note

This time two years ago:
Standing stones

This time five years ago:
The year nears its zenith

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Euro 2012 - the worst is behind us*

The atmosphere in town around lunchtime ahead of the Poland-Russia game was good-natured though tense; the number of Russian fans on Al. Jerozolimskie was greater than I had expected to see (right). Word on the street was that things could turn nasty. A Russian victory on the pitch could spark off some particularly brutal scenes played out in front of the world's media.

Violent scuffles did break out ahead of the game; the police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon. 140 people were arrested; there were 11 injuries. Poland was soon one-nil down; a Poland defeat would surely trigger mass outbreaks of violence. At ten, I received an SMS that Poland had managed to equalise. Time, then to go to sleep hoping that a 1:1 draw would be the final outcome - which thankfully, it was; the ideal score from the point of view of stemming trouble between fans. And then, God-given came the rain to dampen the aggression.

I hope that's it - the worst is over. To escape elimination from the championships, Poland needs to beat the Czech Republic on Saturday in Wrocław. A draw will not suffice. There will no doubt be strong Czech support (Wrocław's nearer to Prague than to Warsaw). Russia has already got through to the quarter finals whatever the outcome of its final group match (with Greece in Warsaw on Saturday). There may be some trouble but certainly not on the scale seen last night. In the meanwhile, five-star hotel rooms are going for 5,000 złotys a night.

*If Poland gets through to face Germany in Gdańsk on Friday 22 June, I may have to eat my words...

This time last year:
Thirty-one and sixty-three - a short story

This time three years ago:
Warsaw rail circumnavigation

This time four years ago:
Classic Polish vehicles

This time five years ago:
South Warsaw sunsets

Monday, 11 June 2012

Football, sophistication and primitivism

So far, so good. No mass outbreaks of mass violence to pique the prurient interest of the British media (the strongest report thus far has been this one in the Daily Telegraph; note the lack of detail and reliance on hearsay).

But tomorrow all this may change; Poland plays Russia at home, in Warsaw - the enmity between Scotland and England ('the Auld Enemy') is as nothing to this.

Amid the flotillas of Polish cars sporting Polish flags, I saw today the first vehicles from Russia. All of them black, all of them with darkened windows, all of them with a showroom price of at least €60,000. We are talking Lexus, Range Rover, BMW 7-series. Friends of Putin or honest entrepreneurs who have worked hard to achieve? A bit of both, most probably.

Given the Czechs' 4:1 thrashing at the hands of the Russians in Wrocław last Thursday, I think it highly unlikely that Poland will manage to even hold the Russians to a draw. In the likely eventuality of a Polish defeat, the streets of Warsaw tomorrow night will not be a safe place to exhibit a black Audi Q7 on Moscow plates. In fact, central Warsaw - from the National Stadium to the Palace of Culture and for many blocks around - will not be a pleasant place to be, full-stop.

Of course, I hope I am proved wrong by events.

It would be nice to see cheerful, sober Polish fans thronging westwards along Most Poniatowskiego politely exclaiming "Tough luck, Russia, jolly good show old chaps, better luck next time," (or even "Well done, Russia, it was indeed the better team that won it"). Nice, but it won't happen. There's too much historical animosity; the Russian boot has stamped down on the Polish face too often to let bygones be bygones on the football field. Especially if the Russian fans then insist on rubbing it in.

Meanwhile, the public face of the city of Warsaw is holding up. The public transport system is working perfectly. The threatened beer drought has not materialised (Guinness at 4.99 zlotys a can at Lidl while stocks last). The atmosphere around the fan zone, less than half a kilometre from my office, remains entirely good natured. Warsaw's Roma mendicant community has withdrawn from visibility, leaving lucrative pitches to Polish beggars, most of whom have a significant alcohol problem. Today I saw one such fellow asleep atop a rubbish bin outside Dworzec Centralny, hand still clutching an empty cola cup containing petty alms.

I can only hope for a positive outcome. If there's one day of this entire tournament that could go badly wrong - it's tomorrow. May the Good Lord, who has provided for Poland so well over the past years, see that somehow, all goes well on the day.

This time last year:
Era becomes T-Mobile

This time two years ago:
Warsaw-Góra Kalwaria-Pilawa rail link closed

This time three years ago:
Marsh harrier, golden airliner over Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
Bus blaze on way to town

This time five years ago:
A beautiful, stormy twilight

Friday, 8 June 2012

There's no pleasing some people...

Moni returned to Warsaw with a suitcase weighing more than her, so I met her at Dworzec Centralny, now looking (and smelling) very decent. The two of us manhandled the baggage to the bus station above, and heaved it onto a 131 bus which would drop of off at Metro Politechnika. Easier than dragging the thing to Metro Centrum. The Poland-Greece match, kicking off the long-awaited Euro 2012 football championship, was in full swing. It was on Wednesday, 18 April 2007 that Michel Platini announced that Poland and Ukraine would jointly host the 2012 UEFA football championships - and here we are! It has happened.

The fan zone, at the foot of the Palace of Culture, was less crowded than I anticipated, but even so, the centre of town was totally focused on football. The next bus stop, Centrum, has been renamed Centrum - Strefa Kibica (Fan Zone). Ul. Marszałkowska has been closed between Rondo Dmowskiego and ul. Świętokrzyska. As our bus drove south along Marszałkowska, we could see fleets of buses ready to take fans home after the match. Buses with numbers like 'F31' and 'F34' - F for football, F for fans. We take the Metro to Wilanowska, and get to a taxi. Moni leaves me with the suitcase and skips off to meet up with friends in Ursynów.

The taxi driver is one of life's moaners. First - the football. Fatalism and pessimism - it's always like this - so much promise, then disappointment. Like life. "Never mind the football," I say. "Just look at how much has been done! The A2 links Warsaw to Berlin, there's a new station at Okęcie airport, Dworzec Centralny and Wschodni have both been thoroughly renovated..." "So what," he replies. "Ul. Wołoska is still a mess after 11 years..." He's not wrong there - I remember driving Moni to primary school on ul. Bełska and thinking that Wołoska will be sorted in a year or two - and now she's at university, that middle section remains single carriageway. The taxi driver went on about the tunnel under the railway at ul. Dźwigowa, the bankrupt stadium subcontractors, the indolence of the city's highway authority, the obscene amount of money paid to the guy who got Poland's sports infrastructure ready for the championships - and of course the Polish football team and its trainer. And then the fact that Puławska around ul. Karczunkowska floods whenever there's a downpour (as there was today).

After a while, I switched off. Yes, of course one can find fault. But surely optimism trumps pessimism every time. Why not take time out every now and then to celebrate achievements, to mark milestones of progress, to share recognition that things are getting better, rather than to trot out a litany of woes? What good does it do? What does moaning achieve?

Anyway, we reach Jeziorki and "Ah! I forgot to switch on the meter. That'll be 30 złotys..." A eminently reasonable price for the 9km/6 mile journey - but the taxman has missed out on his 23%.

This time two years ago:
Lessons for our local policy-makers

This time four years ago:
Recycling for fun and profit

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Visitors fly in for the football

As expected, the impending football championships have created increased air traffic over Jeziorki. The three countries playing qualifying matches along with Poland here in Warsaw are the Czech Republic, Greece and Russia. Below: while Aeroflot usually serves the Moscow-Warsaw route with an Airbus A320, here's a much larger Airbus A330, VQ-BQY. The aircraft is registered in... Bermuda.

Below: a most unusual visitor from Greece - SX-FAR, a Raytheon Hawker 800, privately owned and registered in Greece.

And bringing the Czech fans in - something entirely normal - a scheduled flight served by an ATR 42 belonging to CSA Czech Airlines.

A new sight this season - Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 NextGen, newly delivered (late last month) to Eurolot for internal and short-distance flights. Eurolot will be replacing the ATR 42s and -72s with the Bombardiers.

The football starts tomorrow; let's hope the championships pass off without undue violence, terrorism, crime, pandemics, general mishaps or any other untoward occurrences.

Above: Fanzone Warsaw stands ready to receive. "Experience the sensation of verisimilitude to residence within your own place of abode" - feel at home, like.

This time last year:
Cara al Sol - part II

This time two years ago:
Still struggling with the floodwaters

This time three years ago:
European elections - and I buy used D40
[my Nikon D40 still proving utterly reliable]

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

This time five years ago:
Poppy profusion

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Classic British cars - Jabłonna

Time prevented me from posting these pics last week; this was the BPCC's British Motor Show and Classic Car Rally, starting and finishing at the palace in Jabłonna, some 12 miles north of Warsaw.

Above: a brace of 1949 limousines: left - a Bentley Mark VI, right - a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith. Both belong to a British Pole, both are available for hire ( Standing next to the limos a classic British sports car - the mid-engined, wedge-shaped Lotus Esprit S1, from 1978 (below). The Giugaro-designed Esprit first saw light of day in 1976. The modern aesthetic matured very quickly between the late '40s and mid '70s, after which change slowed down to the point where cars today change shape for marketing reasons rather than aesthetic or engineering ones. Look at the shape below: it's 32 years old, but just 27 years younger than the stately limos seen above.

Below: an Austin-Healey 3000 Mk I from 1960, a rally replica of the car in which Pat Moss (Stirling's sister) won the Liège-Rome-Liège and finished second in the Coupe des Alpes.

my personal favourite of the day: a 1953 Aston Martin DB2/4. Impeccably restored, under the bonnet as well as inside the cockpit, a glorious car that oozes gentlemanly character.

As well as the oldtimers, there were modern cars from Jaguar, Land-Rover, Lotus and Aston Martin; these somehow did not attract my attention. Today's cars for me lack character. A classic that has passed the test of time, driven infrequently and cherished by its owner, is an object of great value and beauty. Without character, a car is but a commodity, a functional box on wheels for getting one from here to where public transport does not go or for doing the weekly shop. I like cars that have a lot more charisma than a washing machine or fridge-freezer.

One of three 'E'-Type Jaguars to take part, a US-spec (no headlamp farings). Note the yellow zabytkowe ('heritage') number plates. Assuming your car is over 25 years old and out of production for over 15 years, original and in good mechanical condition, with zabytkowe plates you can insure your classic car for peanuts. However, by having yellow plates, you relinquish some of your freedoms as the owner; you cannot, for example,  re-export it without the permission of the Polish state.

It was wonderful seeing this many excellently maintained British classics - cars that impressed me since my childhood - in the stately surroundings of a Polish palace. This is what Britishness is all about - quality engineering, thoroughbred tradition, classic style - a language understood the world over.

This time last year:
Cara al Sol - a short story

This time two years ago:
Pumping out the floodwater

This time three years ago:
To Góra Kalwaria and beyond

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

Monday, 4 June 2012

Transport - Poland's development

Flying back from Rysiek's wedding, Adam observed that for most of the time he's been living in Poland, the country has been one great work-in-progress. Finally, he says, it's starting to come right, with the balance of the work now having been completed and only the minority of work still ongoing. An insight worthy of sharing.

The stark deadline for the completion of major infrastructure projects - the first match of the Euro 2012 football championships this coming Friday - has spurred Poland to unprecedented deeds when it comes to infrastructure provision. To my amazement, the A2 motorway has connected Poznań and Łódź to Warsaw. Okęcie airport finally gets a rail link. I've heard this - but don't believe it having been there just a few weeks ago - that Wrocław's main station is reopened, it's remont complete. As is W-wa Wschodnia. And W-wa Zachodnia, my tip for the worst railway station in Poland - now has new electronic signage, shelters and other cosmetic improvements that have dramatically improved user-friendliness.

Below: the new terminal at Gdańsk airport. Google Earth currently has imagery of the terminal from April last year - a muddy building site.

My first flight with OLT Express. I'm impressed. For 149.50 złotys, I'm in Warsaw in 40 minutes (another 40 minutes for check-in, plus 25 minutes bus from town, and 25 mins from Okęcie to Warsaw city centre). This compares to PKP InterCity fares - 122.50 złotys second class, or 160.50 złotys first class, for a journey of five and half hours. You get to chose your seat (not the elbow-bruising rush for best seats on other low-costs) and (!) you get a sandwich and drink on board - for free! Plus - the plane took off and landed on time. How long this will last, I can't say. But my first impressions of OLT Express were extremely favourable.

Below: flying out of Gdańsk; the ribbon in the foreground is the S6 expressway that forms the backbone of the Tri-City and now connects it with the A1 motorway, and down to Toruń, eventually through Łódź and on to Silesia and the Czech Republic. Eventually.

Yes, while much has been achieved, there's still much to be done. The S2 Warsaw Southern Bypass, visible on final approach to Warsaw Okęcie airport. Look at it! How puny, how thin - a mere two lanes! What were the planners thinking? Warsaw's a city the size of Birmingham (UK) - the M6 motorway that runs through it is one solid traffic jam for much of the working day and that carries three lanes in each direction and has a by-pass. The S2 is the main road linking Berlin and Moscow! And going through Warsaw, the largest city in 900km - just two lanes...

Below: another success - re-opened last week, Warsaw's Wschodnia (Eastern) station. The contrast between the old one - full of beggars and reeking of kebab, stale sweat, urine and cheap disinfectant - is just staggering. Suddenly, this part of Warsaw becomes modern and civilised, travel becomes more comfortable.

Below: finally, a shot from Warsaw Central station (looking up at Platform Two from the underground passage linking it to W-wa Śródmieście station). Behold; and worship at The Electrick Tabernackle of Modernitee. Time to stop and contemplate Time itself.

Once upon a time, there was Gdańsk

I arrived in Gdańsk on Saturday at 11:00 (for those of you who think that Warsaw to Gdańsk by train takes seven hours - I'll let you into a secret - you can do it in 4hrs 40mins via Kutno and Bydgoszcz rather than directly). The wedding's not until six, so plenty of time to see the sights. And in Gdańsk, these are plentiful. [I'll be updating this post on the fly, so keep popping back:)]

Below: Gdańsk station and in front of it, a statue commemorating the kindertransports - Jewish children sent by their parents to England by train (often alone) just before the outbreak of WWII to escape their impending fate.

Below: in the Middle Ages, Gdańsk was a world-class high-rise city. Most of the kamienice (tenements) in the old town are five to nine stories high. The Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, completed in 1502, is the world's largest (though not tallest) brick church. (Four days earlier, I visited the world's largest wooden church.)

Through the old town's gates (below) on ul. Chlebnicka, and we get to the Motława river and the mediaeval port on the Długie Pobrzeże ('long foreshore').

Below: the żuraw (pron. ZHOOruv, meaning crane - as in mechanical lifting device, and indeed large bird of the order Gruiformes in both languages) on the Motława. The żuraw was originally built in 1444. In the distance, the SS Sołdek, a ship built in Gdańsk in 1948 and named after a Stakhanovite shipyard worker.

The weather on Saturday was a mix of sunny intervals and intense, cold showers. After seeing the Old Town, I took myself by tram to the seaside. I've been to Gdańsk many times over the years, but I never visited the city's beaches. The Number 8 tram from Gdańsk Główny tram stop terminates at both ends by a beach. The north-western end of the line is at Jelitkowo (lit. 'Little Bowelly'), and this is the beach that I visit first. Below: the tram loop, some 400m from the sea.

Below: a shelter from the coming storm - a solidly constructed beer tent, of typical construction to be found all along the Polish Baltic coast. Here I could sit and have lunch while a rain storm lashed the beach mercilessly for about 20 minutes.

I finish lunch, return to the tram loop to catch a Number 8 from Jelitkowo to Stogi Plaża (that's as in the French plage, not the Spanish plaza), through the city centre again, and out the other side to the sea. The weather is still inclement.

Above: the classic view of Gdańsk, the association with the cradle of the Solidarity movement, shipyard cranes standing sombre and immobile against a brooding sky.

Above: Stogi beach, looking east. Turn around to face west, and you will see the gigantic DCT (Deepwater Container Terminal) port (below). The beach itself is impeccably clean.

The clock is ticking away, time to board a tram back into town and catch a Number 6 to Oliwa for the wedding from Gdańsk Główny tram stop. Below: the Stogi Plaża tram loop is situated amid a forest, less than 300m from the sea.

Below: the High Gate (Brama Wyzynna), seem from the tram heading back into the city centre. A map of Gdańsk is essential, as is a 24-hour bus/tram ticket (12 złotys) which - unlike Warsaw - is not valid for the city's SKM trains. Verily, Gdańsk is Newcastle-upon-Tyne (shipbuilding), Southampton (ports), Oxford (historic buildings) and Bournemouth (beaches) all rolled into one.