Sunday, 30 March 2014

Edinburgh - more photos from this trip

Just to finish off from this visit to Edinburgh (may there be many, many more!), here are come more photos conveying the diverse splendour of the Scottish capital.

For those who've never been - Edinburgh's historic centre is divided into a mediaeval old town (Auld Toun) and a Regency new town. The main thoroughfare of the former is the Royal Mile, which connects the Castle Hill with Holyrood Palace. The Royal Mile itself is divided into five stretches; Castlehill, Lawn Market, High Street, Canonsgate and Abbey Strand leading to the palace. Below: looking up the hill from Lawn Market. Like mediaeval Gdansk, Edinburgh's old geographic constraints forced its builders to construct ever-higher buildings.

Left: 'Scotland's oldest independent whisky bottler', Cadenhead's Whisky Shop on Canonsgate represents the acceptable face of tourism-oriented commerce. Yet for every decent shop like this one there are several selling 'tartan tat', something the city council wishes to deal with.

This is the optimal time of year for visiting Edinburgh, as tourist numbers are still comfortably low and hotel rooms plentiful and cheap.

Below: Holyrood Palace, former home of the kings and queens of Scotland, before the Union of the Crowns (1603) which saw King James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I. The Palace in its present configuration dates back to the late 17th Century, being rebuilt by James's grandson, Charles II.

Below: back up at the other end of the Royal Mile, the castle rises spectacularly over Edinburgh's centre. Over the centuries the castle has both protected and threatened the city. I have yet to visit it - to give such a visit the attention and time it deserves requires the best part of a full day. The entrance fee is £16, or 80 zlotys, nearly four times as much as a ticket to Warsaw's Royal Castle. However, given the size and scale of Edinburgh Castle, it's worth the price - as long as you have the time to do justice to your visit. Whizzing around in one hour is not an option here.

Edinburgh, built on seven hills, is a multi-layered city of viaducts and long flights of steps and steep slopes, adding to its visual attractiveness. Below: Calton Road, linking Holyrood Palace and the New Town, runs under the Regent's Bridge, which carries the A1 as it begins its 410-mile (660km) mile journey to London.

Below: the Governor's House is all that's left of the Felons' Prison or Calton Gaol (1817-1927). Overlooking Waverley Valley, the building is currently empty, having been home to the Scottish Government's multimedia unit.

Waverley Steps - which as a child I came across in Miroslav Sasek's enchanting book This is Edinburgh. Today, the steps are protected from the elements and an escalator takes the less energetic from platform level up to Princes St. There's also a new pair of lifts that do the same, offering a fine view over the station's roof towards the Old Town.

Edinburgh by night: apart from the Royal Mile, the other place worth visiting after dark is Rose St, which runs parallel to Princes St. It's little more than a glorified back alley, a service street for the city's main shopping thoroughfare. Today Rose St has been pedestrianised and boasts a huge number of bars, cafes, pubs and restaurants. Below: looking up Rose Street North Lane.

Below: a display of... light bulbs on St Andrew Square. This is the Field of Light installation by artist Bruce Munro - 9,500 glass spheres connected by optic fibre. It's on display through to 27 April this year.

Below: cast iron and stone - the former entrance to Edinburgh's Princes Street Station (closed in 1965 and demolished in 1970). To the left, the Caledonian Hotel still stands, apart from the arch, the only remnant of the old station complex.

This time last year:
Edinburgh continues to fascinate

This time two years ago:
Ealing in bloom - early spring

This time six years ago:
Swans pay us a visit

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Edinburgh's own urban mountain

Another free morning in Edinburgh - this time due to a cancelled meeting. I decide to walk to the top of Arthur's Seat, the extinct volcano that sits above Holyrood Palace. It is a spectacular feature of Edinburgh - a huge lump of rock surrounded by the city and its suburbs on all sides. Arthur's Seat forms the centrepiece of 260-hectare Holyrood Park

Below: setting off from the Palace, the path is remarkably park-like. But appearances are deceptive - to reach the summit from the western side, scrambling (using hands on cold, wet rock, as well as feet) is required. The asphalt path soon gives way to mountain track.

Below: the views from the top are hugely rewarding, the summit of Arthur's Seat is a must-visit attraction for tourists. Allow around three hours to get to the top from the city centre and back again, though check the weather forecast first, wear appropriate clothing and eat a hearty breakfast.

Below: looking down on Calton Hill, the Observatory (frae hereaboots, I canna nae observe a Tory), National Monument and Nelson Monument. This is the reverse angle shot of the last photo shown in the previous post - looking up at Arthur's Seat from Calton Hill.

Having a 250m mountain poking out of one's city just begs for it to be used for sporting purposes. Apart from the many walkers, joggers and rock-climbers I saw, this chap on a downhill mountain bike setting off from the summit deserves a snap.

Below: the sides of Arthur's Seat are covered in gorse (or furze, or in Scotland - whin). It is rarely out of flower and looks particularly good at this time of year.

Below: looking down on Edinburgh, the Castle in the middle distance, the Firth of Forth and the port of Leith awa' to the right.

Below: a general view from the triangulation point atop the very summit of Arthur's Seat. It was very windy up here. As can be seen, a popular destination for walkers. I can imagine a trip up here can get quite life-threateningly dangerous if one is inadequately dressed and comes up in misty or icy weather; without the right footwear the rocky paths are slippery and it's a long way down.

Below: my descent was more difficult as I followed the path less trodden; this was scrambling territory - my hands grasped for cold, hard rock as I placed my feet onto secure footholds before letting myself down. Not too difficult in these conditions, but not something to do on a misty, icy night in slippery-soled shoes.

In the photo above, Edinburgh University's Pollock Hall is visible on the left-hand edge. I stayed there in June 2012, check this post (last pic) to see how close Arthur's Seat is and how it looks in the mist.

The mountain is quite spectacular when viewed from the city's Southside. Below: looking east along Lutton Place. If you look closely at the summit of Arthur's Seat, you can see people up there. That was me, some 40 minutes earlier!

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
A wee taste of Edinburgh

This time four years ago:
First long bike ride of the season

This time five years ago:
Life returns to Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
Early spring dusk

Friday, 28 March 2014

On Calton Hill, Edinburgh

Edinburgh must rank as one of the world's most beautiful cities. The mix of diverse architectural splendour, natural setting and rich history make visiting it an absorbing experience. There's so much to see that delights the eye. Situated like Rome atop seven hills, Edinburgh is a walker's city, requiring effort to get around it all. This is my fifth visit in four years, I can't get enough of the place.

Yesterday, with some free time in the morning, I set off up Calton Hill to see the view from the top and the monuments that decorate the summit. Below: view of the top from western side. To the left, the back of the City Observatory, to the right, the Dugald Stewart Monument.

Below: built to commemorate Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart, this neo-classical monument of nine Corinthian columns was completed in 1831. In the distance, behind it, Edinburgh Castle, to the left the clock tower of the Balmoral Hotel and the Walter Scott Monument.

Left: this is the Nelson Monument, erected in memory of Britain's most famous sailor. The monument, visible from the Firth of Forth, two and half miles (4km) to the north, is topped with a time ball. Shortly before 1pm, it is raised aloft (left), then at the stroke of one, it falls (right), allowing sailors to set their chronometers. Simultaneously, a 25-pounder gun is fired at Edinburgh Castle, allowing clocks to be re-set even in case of fog.

A similar time-ball is to be found on the Royal Observatory in London's Greenwich.

Below: looking down Princes Street. In the distance to the right, Corstophine Hill. Next month, Edinburgh will at last see the new tramway coming into operation; it will run along Princes Street and link the city centre with the airport, beyond Corstophine. Work started in 2009. Today I read that the new line may be extended to Leith  and the Ocean Terminal on the Firth of Forth, paid for by EU funds.

Below: the National Monument, which was meant as a pantheon to fallen Scottish soldiers, commenced after the Napoleonic Wars but left unfinished. At first a national scandal, today a beloved part of the city's skyline.

Below: Arthur's Seat, another of Edinburgh's hills, the most spectacular one. Forming part of Holyrood Park, this extinct volcano is located one mile from the Castle Hill.  Its very wilderness suggests that it is part of a great expanse of rugged mountainous terrain, but actually it is surrounded by Edinburgh and its suburbia on all sides.

Edinburgh is a Most splendid city, one to visit again and again bringing delight each time. Little surprise then, that it tops UK rankings for cities that people want to live in. English accents are to be heard in the street, and judging by the speakers' attire, they are working here rather than visiting. Click on the Edinburgh label below for more photos of the city.

This time last year:
Doomsday - the Last Judgment

This time two years ago:
Sunny Scotland at +23.9C 

This time three years ago:
The iconic taste of Marmite

This time four years ago:

This time five year ago:

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Scotland and its language

North of the border for a few days. I observe with each subsequent visit to Scotland an increase in bilingual signage (some examples below) since the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005 was passed by the Scottish Parliament.

Falkirk High station: Braighe na h-Eaglaise Brice. Aye, right.

All signs in the Scottish Parliament are bilingual - except the important ones ('Caution automatic door', 'No smoking' or 'In case of fire, do not use lifts'). A triumph of symbolism over common sense.

Reile na h-Alba. Get used to it. Or not, as the case may be.

"Stitch this, Jimmy" = "Beuwth seo, Seumas
According to the 2011, the number of speakers of Scottish Gaelic was 58,000 (1.2% of the population) mainly in the Highlands, which compares to 19% of the population of Wales that can speak Welsh. I can see the sense of spending public money on painting Arafwch Nawr or Yr Heddlu on roads and buildings in North Wales (where people can be heard speaking Welsh in shops, pubs and bus stops). But in Glasgow or Edinburgh it makes as much sense as translating street signs in London into Anglo-Saxon.

Anyway, Scottish Gaelic is but one language spoken by Scots in Scotland - there's also the Scots Language (think Robbie Burns) and Scottish English - a dialect. Now the Scots Language, spoken in the Lowlands, has more than double the number of native speakers that Scottish Gaelic has. In my mind, it has a greater claim when it comes to official status. Scottish Gaelic as a language was proscribed by the Scottish government in 1616, nearly a century before the Act of Union.

Yesterday I was speaking at the Cross Party Group on Poland at the Scottish Parliament. Before me, there was a councillor from Fife talking about the need to improve bilingual education for the children of Polish migrants in his constituency. "But then again," he said "I can only speak two languages - Scots and Fife!" There was much laughter. Scots indeed - but not Gaelic.

Insisting on translating signs into another language that few know results in waste of money, as this painfully hilarious story from Wales shows. Road signs in Wales being bilingual, Swansea Council e-mailed its in-house translation unit asking for the Welsh version of: "No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only". The reply was: "Nid wyf yn y swyddfa an hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith i'w gyfieithu". This was duly painted on a big three-foot by five-foot road sign, until a Welsh speaker pointed out that it actually means "I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated." Cwymp parti stowt. Interestingly, Welsh and Irish Gaelic can both be translated using Google Translate, but Scottish Gaelic cannot.

Re-creating an almost-forgotten language can work (Hebrew in Israel post-1948), sometimes it semi-works (Irish Gaelic in the Irish Free State / Irish Republic post-1920). But in Scotland... I strongly suspect this is 'jobs-for-the-boysism', creating an artificial need for hundreds of translating teams to be appended to local authorities, law courts and Scottish government offices up and down the land. Bear in mind that the last monolingual speaker of Scottish Gaelic, unable to function in English, died in the 1970s on some remote island, far away from the bustle of Sraid na Banrighinn.

This time last year:
Death, our sister

This time two years ago:
First bike ride to work of the year

This time three years ago:
Poland's trains ran faster before the war

This time four years ago:
Winter in spring: surely this must be the last snow?

This time five years ago:
Surely THIS must be the last snow?

Monday, 24 March 2014

New road and retail

One for the record - the opening of a new Biedronka in Jeziorki looms ever closer. Here's the big box - waiting for the logos, the trolleys, the products, and customers. The job has been done at a good private-sector pace (I just hope the flat roof can withstand the weight of a heavy snowfall).

While the shop's nearly ready, the road connecting it to the outside world still has much work needed to get it ready. Below: diggers busy preparing the trench for sewerage early last week. Question - will this road connect Mysiadło with Karczunkowska? It makes sense to open up ul. Borówki and link it to the new store and via Karczunkowska with Jeziorki and Warsaw proper.

Below: a few days later, the trench has been dug. Recalling how long it took to complete the road-building elements of the viaduct carrying ul. Poloneza over the S2, I suspect that the owners of Biedronka will be waiting with a shop that's ready to open for the road-builders to finish and hand over the new road.

Despite the extra traffic, the appearance of a new store in Jeziorki meets with my approval, not least because the Biedronka chain (Poland's largest retailer, owned by Jeronimo Martins, a Portuguese firm) is noted for the quality and accessible price of its Portuguese wines.

Store ready in a few weeks, road ready late summer?

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's Northern Bridge - its name and local democracy

This time four years ago:
What's Polish for 'commuter'?

This time five years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

This time six years ago:
The fate of urban wetlands?

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Warsaw's abandoned goods station

See it while you can - an abandoned railway station in the heart of a European capital. Warsaw's old goods station is completely accessible on foot - indeed even by car.  I've written about the Zachodnia end of this vast expanse of sidings and abandoned railway infrastructure here and here (with map); I promised to return to finish the job, so here pics from the ul. Towarowa end.

Between the Railway Museum and post office on ul. Towarowa is a cobbled street (below) that leads to the platforms of the goods station serving the post office. There are no barriers, indeed no signs, prohibiting you from strolling right in.

And what do you find? This is at the eastern end of the mass of railway sidings that stretches all the way from W-wa Zachodnia station through to the old W-wa Główna Osobowa on ul. Towarowa (now the railway museum).There were four platforms serving mail trains; vans would drive down between the platforms.

I remember in my first job in Poland, around 1997-98, coming here around midnight to witness the dispatch by mail train of hundreds of thousands of cable TV listings magazines (of which I was publisher) to various towns around Poland.

Below: on the horizon, a new development is appearing on the skyline; Warsaw's '19th District' - which would be an apt name for this vast area of abandoned sidings between the districts of Wola and Ochota.

Below: to the right, an abandoned warehouse; to the left, across ten abandoned tracks and six tracks still in use - the modern buildings of Al. Jerozolimskie.

Below: an abandoned water crane standing amid hectares of wasteland north of Al. Jerozolimskie

Below: in the distance, the Palace of Culture; to the right the neglected exhibits of Poland's national railway museum, resting and rusting, await a new home. To the left, the old post office warehouse.

Left: one track still show signs of life, i.e. there are no trees growing up between the rails. This is the track that connects the railway museum to the outside world.

One day in the not-too-distant future, the museum's collection will need to be hauled out of its open-air home to what will hopefully be a more fitting resting place in Odolany. Properly restored, under a roof, the old steam locos will, I hope, be spared any further indignity and will give delight to many generations of Varsovians to come.

Below: the end of the northern-most platform of the goods station, looking towards the city centre. Trees are sprouting everywhere. Nature, left to its own devices, would soon obliterate the buildings.

Below: tracks disappearing into an urban forest, south of ul. Kolejowa. Tons of dumped rubbish blight the area; otherwise, this could be a Most interesting alternative picnic spot in the summer!

Below: looking westward toward W-wa Zachodnia in the far distance; the yellow gates belong to PKP PLK's diagnostic centre.

I'm sure that in five years time, this area will be a massive building site, and in ten years time this will be a posh new part of central Warsaw full of shops, offices and apartment blocks. See it while you can, catch the atmosphere.

Update 2019: "in five years time" this has become a hipster all-nite food court.

This time last year:
Social justice - the Church and inequality

This time two years ago:
Google Street View comes to Poland

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Clash of Narratives

“He was coming home drunk every night and behaved abusively towards me and the children.”

“She only married me for my money. She never loved me nor respected me.”

Two narratives. Who's right? Unless we knew these people, it's hard to tell at first sight.

“The West has been encroaching upon Russia since the end of the Cold War. Russia had to take Crimea in its own self-interest, to stop its naval bases falling into the hands of NATO.”

“Russia is again meddling in the affairs of a sovereign nation, using force, subterfuge and blatant lies to unilaterally re-draw European borders against the will of the international community.”

Two narratives. Who's right? Unless we know history, it's hard to tell at first sight.

The Russian narrative hinges on its tragic 20th Century, its victory over Fascist Germany in the Great Patriotic War taking centre stage, with the Gulag, the terror visited upon millions of Russians by Russians, pushed back an an uncomfortable sub-plot. The raising of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag is still the crowning moment in the Russian narrative. Fascism the enemy. If Russia wishes to denounce an enemy, it is in terms of fascism.

The Red Army liberated the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. The imposition on the back of Stalin's tanks of a brutal, economically stupid, regime on the captive nations of the countries that would become the Soviet bloc is viewed in Russia in imperial terms. The Soviet bloc was but a slightly enlarged version of the Tsar's empire, with Russia at the heart of it. Something that Stalin, himself a Georgian, understood full well in 1945. Russia, a great nation, arrayed around it its brothers and its cousins Ukrainian, Byelorussians, Latvians, Armenians, Kazakhs; call it the “Russian Empire”, the“Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”, the “Eurasian Union” or whatever – it is, was and will be, eternal, imperial Russia. Sonorous as the great Kremlin bells, vast as the endless taiga stretching from Europe's borders unto the Pacific Ocean

And against Mother Russia – there stands the West. America, Europe... Decadent, liberal, crypto-fascist. Meddling in the world's affairs, be it in Iraq or Afghanistan, in Syria, Libya or Egypt... or indeed in Ukraine. Always meddling. Always figuring a way to encroach still deeper into Russia's sphere of influence.

In the Russian Narrative (be it voiced by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin or the late Peter Ustinov) Ukraine is Russia's cradle, Kievian Rus'; Kiev and Moscow – the heartland. In the Russian Narrative, Ukrainians are merely Russians who speak a bit funny (as Englishmen see Welshmen). They are to be gently mocked as bumpkins, kept in the fold, but, should their national aspirations get out of hand, they are to be denounced as fascists. After all, says the Russian Narrative, they collaborated with the fascists during the war. [The question of 'why' is inconvenient – Ukrainian school textbooks mentioning the Hlodomor – Stalin's enforced famine that killed several million Ukrainians in the 1930s – were burnt by Russian nationalists in Kharkhiv last week.]

The Russian Narrative also sees Mother Russia as perpetual victim, surrounded on all sides by historical enemies intent on bringing their armies ever closer to the Kremlin walls. Mongols, Tatars, Swedes, Poles, the French, the Germans – they've all tried and failed miserably. And central to the failure of the evil outsiders to conquer Mother Russia is the figure of the one strong leader to maintain Russia's glory. From Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Stalin... and Putin. Russia's weakness stemmed not from weak institutions, underdevelopment or lack of good governance and a strong middle class, but from the lack of a strong man. Russia's 20th Century defeats are the fault of the weak Romanov Tsars, of the weakness of Gorbachev and his superannuated predecessors. A strong man must break eggs to make omelettes. Yes, innocent Russians will perish at the hands of Russia, but their sacrifice will have been for Russia's greater good. The strong man must be kept strong by strong a strong security apparatus, be it the Okhrana, the NKVD, the KGB or FSB. The courts, the media, the church, must all be behind the strong man, or else his strength will ebb and Russia will be threatened. All voices questioning the strong man are therefore questioning Russia itself.

It is historians who hone narrative, who nuance it, who question given theses on the basis of new sources coming to light, who revise the narrative until there's a consensus around it. The West's narrative is disparate, many-stranded, divided; but the West's core strength lies in the very things that Ukrainians were protesting for in Kiev's Maidan. Rule of law, a civil society, a lack of corruption, property rights, strong institutions, stability and predictability – the bedrock upon which young human beings can plan their lives, study, save, buy a place of their own, raise children.

The Ukrainian narrative is young and fragile; it has yet to find a place for the ethnic cleansing that went on in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands in 1943, for the Ukrainian SS units that fought alongside the Nazis, for the corruption and cronyism that dashed the hopes of the 2005 Orange Revolution. The narrative needs to be wise, nuanced and palatable to the West.

Russia, for all its posturing, is weak. Its computers run on Microsoft Windows; its browsers are Firefox, Internet Explorer, Google or Opera. Its banks' credit cards are in the Visa and Mastercard networks. It is weak because it is insufficiently pluralist. We live in an interconnected world, and the Big Man's Big Fist is no longer enough. If it keeps going down the Putinist path, propelled by a dangerously one-sided narrative, it will implode.

If one good thing's come out of the Ukraine crisis, it's the resurgence of the term 'the West' - and this time Poland is in the West.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
Prime lens or zoom?

This time three years ago:
Warsaw's failed bid as City of Culture, 2016

This time four years ago:
Stalinist downtown at dusk

This time five years ago:
The End of an Age of Excess?

This time six years ago:
Snowy Easter in England

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Joe Biden in Warsaw

Good to know at times like these that Poland has got strong allies across the Atlantic. Passing through Warsaw Okecie airport today, I spied Air Force Two on the military apron. This is a Boeing C-32A, 80002, a military VIP version of the Boeing 757 commercial airliner. It had just brought US vice-president Joe Biden to Warsaw for talks with Polish premier Donald Tusk regarding the Russian invasion of Crimea.

Mr Biden's visit was preceded on Sunday by the arrival of a C-17 transport aircraft bearing all the necessary requisites for a vice-presidential visit. Takes me back to those days back in May 2011 when Barrack Obama visited Warsaw. That was a real feast for plane-spotters!

This time two years ago:
Motive power for the coal and oil trains that pass Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
Sleet, snow, no sign of spring

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Today, a tipping point in European history

It is a sad day, and one from which there can be no retreat. An illegal referendum, skirmishes across eastern Ukraine, mumbled threats. The scenario looks familiar. The most likely outcome? Crimea territorially incorporated into Russia, another frozen conflict dragging on in the Donbas. Longer term, the rest of Ukraine will become an ideological battleground between the civilised values of the western world and the spiteful revanchism of a Cold War loser. Russia is paranoid - the West is encroaching upon its heartland. With ideas that appeal to middle classes everywhere - rule of law, civil society, transparency, respect for human rights, the West offers more enticing prospects for citizens' futures.

Putin has lost any lingering sympathy he might have still had in the West; he has exposed himself as a dangerous man playing a nasty game tinged with nationalism, he has ostracised himself from the global community. Alone in the UN Security Council, excluded from the Big Table by G7. But his version of the Russian Narrative still plays well at home.

Bit by bit, the shutters will come down on the Russian economy. The West will redouble its efforts to build up energy independence (US gas exports, shale gas exploration in Europe, greater investment in renewable energy), and Western investors in Russia will be preparing themselves for a haircut. Sanctions against individuals will take hold, matched by retaliations from Moscow. But at the end of the day, the Russian economy will hurt first. Russia's dependence on EU as a market for its raw materials and as a source of foreign investment is much greater than the EU's dependence on Russia.

The main reason is that apart from Kalashnikovs, vodka and matryoshka dolls, Russia doesn't make very much. Its industries are run down; what modern factories there are belong to foreign investors like Volkswagen or Ford. Existing investments may keep on going for a while, but major new Western investments will quickly dry up.

Some oligarchs will jump ship, taking stock of the situation to hang onto their London or Monte Carlo-based wealth. Russia's already experiencing a major capital flight - this will intensify in coming weeks. Those that don't jump are too involved in Putin's web and may be on a sanctions shortlist.

In the longer term, can Russia afford to maintain its military and its vast disinformation army (take a look at the comments section of any opinion-making English-language news websites to see the scale of this) as it finds itself increasingly cut off from global markets?

In the Far East, Russia is weak and unprotected. China is playing a clever game, maintaining silence when it comes to criticising Putin's play. Across the Amur, great wealth lies.

You can win a protracted industrial-era war by herding slaves into factories and get them to produce more tanks, more cannon, more ammunition - but you can't herd slaves to write you better software. Conflict has moved on. In one respect, Putin's slick propaganda machine still needs to be matched - there are too many unwitting dupes of Moscow around, retweeting the latest from some Kremlin Lord Haw-haw.

The next steps - a lot of conciliatory talk from Putin, a lot of talk of self-restraint (for Western audiences), while across Ukraine ugly things will continue to happen, mostly stirred up or initiated directly by the Kremlin and its agents.

In the past, smiling images of Mr Putin would mitigate some of the underhand activities going on (Chechnya, Georgia), but now, he's lost it. No charm offensive on his part will be able to take things back to the way they were in 2013. Western analysts and commentators have uncovered the Putin agenda - imperial, nationalistic, revanchist; a direct threat to the European Union as a repository of civilised values, civil society and strong, transparent institutions.

I lived the first 34 years of my life in the Cold War. It looks like Cold War II is dawning. For those too young to remember the first one, life went on pretty much as normal, though with the ever-present nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over us. How do today's events in Ukraine feel in Poland? I guess similar to what it felt like in West Germany when the Warsaw Pact entered Czechoslovakia in 1968.

If a new Iron Curtain will descend, Poland will be on the right side of it this time, along with nine other former communist countries now within the structures of NATO and the EU. Ukraine may end up split, with a West Ukraine a neutral country like Finland and Austria ended up after WWII. Belarus will become strategic for Russia, a land bridge to the Kaliningrad oblast. Lukashenka will be drawn, whether he likes it or not, deeper and deeper into the Kremlin's maw; he will have no independent alternative. Estonia and Latvia will need to keep a close watch on their Russian populations, to ensure that these don't provoke Putin to try his chances there too. That's NATO territory - that would be extremely unwise.

Putin's 61 - the same age Stalin was in 1939. A dangerous age.

This time last year:
Random sentiments from London suburbs

This time two years ago:
Stalinist neo-classicism in Warsaw

This time three years ago:
A week into Lent
[Easter was very late]

This time four years ago:
Afternoon-dusk-night in the city centre

This time five years ago:
A particularly harrowing reality

This time six years ago:
Wetlands waiting for the spring

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Architectural contrasts around Wilanowska

Thanks once again to Marcin Daniecki for the suggestion - a short photo-essay around Metro Wilanowska highlighting the contrast between modernity and the past. The area around the Metro Station and bus terminal used to be Warszawa Południowa narrow-gauge railway station (until 1969); the station building was demolished in 2000. A few old buildings remain; the one below today just a ruin. Beyond, the new developments behind Wilanowska.

Below: a tenement that's survived the war. It's still in use; behind it stands another modern development between ul. Puławska and Al. Niepodległości.

Below: the same building, seen from ul. Puławska. It stands in the shade of the tower blocks above. Both end-walls of this tenement are covered with huge murals. One (Syn Ulicy - szemrane piosenki) is featured in this post.

Below: looking across ul. Domaniewska (which was recently connected up to ul. Rolna, and thence across to Al. KEN and Kabaty). In the foreground, an out-building belonging to a pre-war dworek.

Below: further south along ul. Puławska, following the track of the old narrow-gauge railway line, a small pre-war apartment building on the corner of ul. Niedżwiedzia.

Below: what remains of the bazaar on Puławska, corner of Wałbrzyska. Much of this traditional Warsaw bazaar was demolished to make way for an office and retail development. A few stalls remain; the smell of rotting leeks and cabbage leaves pervades.

Essentially, we can categorise the built environment thus: a) Ruins. b) Dilapidation. c) Post-war unmodernised. d) Historic, refurbished. e) Modern, elegant. Warsaw's architectural charm lies in the fact that a), b), c), d) and e) can all be found cheek-by-jowl to one another.

This time last year:
In memory of me

This time two years ago:
Cleaning sensors on my Nikons

This time three years ago:
Changing seasons and one's samopoczucie

This time four years ago:
Stunning late-winter beauty
[these are among my most gorgeous winter photos ever]

This time five years ago:
Lenten fare - Jeziorki gumbo

This time six years ago:
Digging up Dawidowska

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

10,000 is a lot steps for one working day

Into the second week of Lent, taking it totally in my stride. Not a drop of alcohol, no meat, no sugar (other than that naturally occurring in fruit or unsweetened fruit juice), no fast food or salt snacks. And no temptation too. Sit-ups - 100 in the morning, 100 at night. Caffeine limited to one coffee in the morning - then only fruit infusions thereafter. Moderate amounts of coffee improve brain function and stave off dementia.

I'm eating lots of fish (tinned mackerel, smoked salmon mostly), bulghar wheat, lentils, chickpeas, salads with feta and anchovy, apples, bananas, natural yogurt, wholemeal bread, cheese - good stuff. And I've been introduced to a new burger bar - KroWarzywa on ul. Hoża (just off Marszałkowska). A nice play on words - Krowa żywa = live cow; Warzywa = vegetables. This place makes six different types of vegetarian burgers. I had the chickpea one with spicy tomato sauce and a huge salad in a wholemeal bun. Excellent - tasty, healthy and great value for 13.50 złotys (£2.65).

The sit-ups are going well because I started shortly after the New Year, building up to reach 100 in one go just ahead of Lent. It feels great to get to 90, then blast the final ten. And then there's walking...

My Tanita pedometer (John Lewis, £24.95) is an excellent instrument (although NoomWalk or other apps do much the same thing if you have a smartphone). Given the World Health Organisation, the National Health Service and the US Surgeon-General all suggest 10,000 paces as a recommended daily target, I've made this my Lenten target too. Over the first week of Lent, my daily average was 11,350 paces - around 8.4km.

My experience today will show just how much walking one needs to do to make your 10,000. This morning I walked from home to W-wa Jeziorki station (around 1,300 paces), from W-wa Śródmieście station to the office (around 400), to the India Curry restaurant on Żurawia for a vegetarian business lunch, and back, from the office to Centrum Metro station... and getting off at Wilanowska, I looked at my pedometer and it showed a measly 6,500 paces. So instead of boarding a bus, I walked to Al. Lotników, and caught a bus from there; travelled on one more stop beyond Karczunkowska to Dąbrówka and walked the long way home from there. Another look at the pedometer - still only 8,500 paces. So I passed the house, and kept on along ul. Trombity, round the corner on to Nawłocka to the end of the paved section - and back home. 10,070 recorded.

Now, if you are driving to work every day rather than walking to station to office to station to bus stop and home, it must be incredibly unlikely that you can squeeze in your recommended daily output of steps. The car has made us lazy and unfit.

This time last year:
Bary mleczne - Warsaw's cheap eateries

This time two years ago:
Nikkor 45mm f2.8 pancake lens reviewed

This time three years ago:
Old Town, another prospect

This time three years ago:
W-wa Śródmieście - commuters' staging post

This time five years ago:
Filthy ul. Poloneza
[five years on, there's finally prospect of change]

This time six years ago:
A sight that heralds the coming of spring

Monday, 10 March 2014

A night of musical enchantment with the Webb Sisters

Charley and Hattie Webb were the angelic voices backing Leonard Cohen on tours around the world and on some of his recent albums over the past five years. This evening, the two sisters played Warsaw's Fabryka Trzciny, a beautiful evening of close harmony. Their melodic fusion of folk, bluegrass, pop and Celtic music appeals to a broad audience, divine voices so perfectly in tune with one another. And musicianship that testifies to endless hours of practice, ever since childhood in a musical family. The 10,000 hour rule, made manifest.

Below: Hattie on harp and mandolin, Charley on acoustic guitar. A magical night. Indeed, I could have gone on listening all night. The audience listened, rapt, and reverent. In between the songs, Charley and Hattie would swap unscripted, unrehearsed comic banter, which had the row in front of me in stitches.

The encore was a pure delight - Charley left her guitar on stage, and together with Hattie, the sisters came down into the audience, entirely unplugged, no microphones - just two angelic voices accompanied by a harp - and unlit by spotlights - communion with music in its purest form.

After the show, the girls were happy to chat with fans, autograph CD covers and sell tea towels (yes!). A wonderful, thoroughly enjoyable evening, which will be repeated tomorrow in Katowice and on Tuesday in Wrocław. If you live in or near those cities - do go, you too will be enchanted.

This time last year:
A selfless faith

This time two years ago:
Ul. Profesorska after the remont

This time three years ago:
Lent kicks off again, for the 20th year in a row for me

This time four years ago:
Half way through Lent

This time six years ago:
Spring much closer