Monday, 31 August 2015

Gold Train update, Monday 31 August 2015

Why does the Gold Train story resonate so strongly with Britons? The generations brought up on the Rev. W. Awdry's Railway SeriesBelow: who, having seen this image as a six year-old, can forget Henry the Green Engine being walled into the tunnel from which he refused to emerge? [From The Three Railway Engines, first published in 1945, illustrated by C. Reginald Dalby.] This is how I remember Henry...

...And this is how my children remember the scene, from Britt Allcroft's 1984 TV adaptation of the series. Faithful to the original concept.

Or the search for Duke the Lost Engine, published in 1970, illustrated by Gunvor and Peter Edwards (below)? "Years passed. Winter torrents washed soil from the hills... Trees and bushes grew around. You wouldn't have known a[n]...engine was there."

Well, Henry was extracted from the tunnel, to go on and enjoy a famous career as a Really Useful Engine - while Duke the Lost Engine was found by a group of determined enthusiasts and restored to his former glory. Ahhh... If only that great mystical philosopher, the Rev. W. Awdry, were alive today... My brother postulates this.

So - what's new today? The search has moved on to Kilometre 61, further on up the line towards Wrocław than the previous hot location, Kilometre 65. It is the British press - in particular the Daily Mail's Ed Wight and the Daily Telegraph's Matthew Day and Gregory Walton - who're doing the digging on the story, while the Polish media (with the exception of TVN)  is happy to sit back and wait, without engaging readers' or viewers' emotions.

I have some reservations - this photo (below), on the Mail's website, captioned "This family lived in a house overlooking the entrance to the tunnel. Slowikowski claims they were all killed on May 5, 1945, by the Nazis just days before the Soviets marched in. Rail workers suspected it was to keep them quiet". Yet the car to the left of the image is a Skoda 1201 Kombi estate, which did not enter production until 1952.

So - let's move to Kilometre 61 and see where the possible location no. 3 is... The fine green line demarcates Wałbrzych's city limits, so if the tunnel's here, it would also fulfil the condition of falling under the responsibility of the city's mayor.

I'm assuming the tunnel would be to the west of the Wrocław-Wałbrzych main line, because of the curve of the track and the steeply rising hillside.

It's around here that a forest fire broke out yesterday, and was quickly brought under control. Visitors from all over the world are gathering - should the gold train be discovered soon, Wałbrzych will be one hell of a place be be!

Meanwhile the Polish state in all its glory continues to get its knickers in a twist over the issue. Who's in charge? The army? The Lower Silesian Voivodship's Marshal's office - or the Voivode's office? Or the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage? Or the Mayor of Wałbrzych? Or the State Forests? Or the Służba Ochrony Kolei? Or the police? Or all supervised by the Council of Ministers? A crisis HQ has been set up - I bet that its first meeting must have been interesting, as all the above slug it out for supremacy.

In the hills above Wałbrzych, the authorities are trying to keep amateur treasure hunters at bay, while the Sztab Kryzysowy decides on a course of action.

This story will not go away until the location shown on ground-penetrating radar by the deputy culture minister is explored. If it's shown (again) to be empty of trains (carrying gold or otherwise) - fine - the exploration must have been seen by the world's media as having been undertaken in a thorough way, following good practice from beginning to end. This may be the outcome. Yet if a train is found, the lengths that have been taken to hide it suggest that it's unlikely to be just a regular armoured train carrying nothing but artillery and anti-aircraft guns. We wait - this story is just fabulous. In the literal sense of the word.

[Links to Part I here and II of the story here.]

This time last year:
Changes to Poland's road traffic laws

This time two years ago:
Poland post the Rubbish Revolution

This time three years ago:
Poland's most beautiful street

This time four years ago:
Getting to grips with phrasal verbs

This time six years ago:
What Putin wrote about Molotov-Ribbentrop

This time seven years ago:
Summer Sunday in the city

This time eight years ago:
Last bike-ride to work of the summer

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Gold Train Rush part II: the search intensifies

What a story! This one will run and run. [Link to Part I of the gold train story here.] [Link to Part III of the gold train story here.] An antidote to all the bad news that assails us from east and west. Where's the gold train? Don't believe those who say the area is so wide it could be anywhere. It couldn't be just anywhere. It has to be somewhere close to the railway network as it was in the wartime German region of Niederschlesien - today's Dolny Śląsk (Lower Silesia).

Using Google I found some WW2-vintage German railway maps of the region from 1944 (below, click to enlarge). There are two possible locations - one is currently under intense media scrutiny, and crawling with treasure hunters and police (500zł fines being handed out for trespassing on railway land). This is the one I alluded to yesterday. The other... Bear with me.

Now let's look at the same area on a modern real-time map of the Polish state railway network. (That green icon is a Koleje Dolnośłąskie train heading towards Wrocław). Bear in mind that Waldenburg is now Wałbrzych, Schweidnitz now Świdnica, Reichenbach now Dzierzoniów, etc.

OK. So back to the mainstream theory... the gold train is in a tunnel that was dug under Książ castle, north of Wałbrzych. The spur comes off the main Wrocław-Wałbrzych line at around Kilometre 65, the line heading to the tunnel branching off the main line some 1.2km north of Wałbrzych Szczawienko station. So - photoshopping the Google Earth map of the area, we have this.

Far more likely than this, which has appeared on the internet as a contender... Bahnhof Nieder Salzbrunn (bottom of 1938 German map) is today's Wałbrzych Szczawienko station. Wrong side of the line - this location lies lower than the tracks, and any slope leading down to a tunnel in this place would be too steep. Besides, the 1938 map doesn't refer to a spur swinging off to the north - which would have been built between 1938 and 1945.

But here's my theory. Based on the secret of Box Tunnel in Wiltshire, my hunch is that the Nazis built a spur off the 1.6km tunnel (the longest railway tunnel in Poland) along the line linking Wałbrzych with Kłodzko, to the south-east. This is nearer the location of the Projekt Riese complexes. Possible location no. 2.

And here's a bit of back-up evidence. Service on the single-track Wałbrzych to Kłodzko line is being suspended from 1 to 30 September - between Wałbrzych and Jedlina-Zdrój. A replacement bus service will be in operation. Making any connections?

Let's hope we'll soon find out where the legendary treasure train is - to date, all that turns up in secret tunnels under Polish railway stations is illegal meat-processing factories!

In the meantime, Wałbrzych will be experiencing an influx of the curious like never before.

This time last year:
The Vistula from on high

This time four years ago:
Bad car day

This time five years ago:
Dragonfly summer

This time seven years ago:
"What do we want?" "Early retirement!"

This time eight years ago:
Greenhouse sunset

Friday, 28 August 2015

All aboard the gold train rush

What a story! This has got everything! Looted Nazi gold, a deathbed confession, an armoured train in a secret tunnel, lost for 70 years - believed to be just a myth - and now looking more and more likely with each passing day. No wonder the world's media are hyping up the story that two treasure-hunters claim to have found the mythical gold train somewhere under Wałbrzych. Click here for BBC, here for Daily Telegraph, here for Daily Mail, here for Guardian and here for Independent coverage. [Incidentally, comparing the stories is an interesting exercise in itself for Britain-watchers.]

The Polish media are somewhat less excited. There have been so many false alarms in the past, and now the story is in the hands of the public administration, where time passes at a far slower rate than that demanded by TV news, there's a more realistic wait-and-see attitude among Polish editors. So while the gold train story also made the evening news today on TVN, it was the second-from-last item.

Let's get to the meat of the story then. Most Poles will have heard about the secret mines dug for the Nazis by slave labourers in the Góry Sowie ('Owl Mountains'). The tale (Projekt Riese) is shrouded in mystery, as there's no historical evidence as to why the Nazis wanted to burrow under these mountains. Was it to be a well-protected bastion for Hitler? Or factories for secret weapons? Or just conventional weapons? Or home to the Nazi nuclear programme? Were these tunnels to be used to hide looted gold and artwork?

Do take a look at the Wikipedia Projekt Riese article, as it gives an idea of the massive scale of the unfinished project, which was initiated in late 1943. Several of the complexes have been opened to the public, and some of the photos from the caverns are mind-boggling. It is quite understandable why myths should have arisen about a train full of looted gold. The Projekt Riese website has a whole section about the myths - one of which is indeed about this particular train that has captured the world's headlines this week.

Part of the Projekt Riese Rzeczka Complex. Photo: Wikipedia - author Przykuta

OK, so now that the hands of the deputy culture minister are on this affair, we can expect weeks, months, of cautious umming and ahhing, prevarication, legal reasons why the Polish state must proceed with the hunt at a snail's pace ('possible presence of chemical weapons, land-mines, booby traps etc'; budgets, departmental responsibilities - the army or the culture ministry, the local authorities or central government). The story will slide off the front pages while the powers that be determine who does what and when.

Meanwhile, scores of treasure hunters will descend upon south-west Poland armed with detection equipment of varying sensitivity. It is likely that this independent pressure will keep the Polish State on its toes.

Where is it? Open Google Earth or Google Maps, and look at the railway line running north of Wałbrzych Szczawienko station. The trained eye can see the remnants of a spur heading towards Książ Castle, situated on a hill. Where did that railway spur end? Looks like it buried itself into the hillside. Or is the tunnel somewhere off the main line between Wrocław and Wałbrzych? Or is that a false scent? All has echoes of a railway story by the Rev. W. Audry, Britain's greatest mystical philosopher... Shades of Duke the Lost Engine, or Henry getting walled into a tunnel.

So let's say that Piotr Zuchowski, deputy culture minister, is right, and the radar imaging published today is indeed an armoured train carrying vast amounts of gold and other treasures. Then what? The two treasure hunters who made the announcement have claimed 10% for themselves. Fine - the rightful rewards of their initiative. We may be talking billions of euros in total. Who does it belong to? This will take many long years, and international tribunals, to sort out. How much should return to the families of Nazi victims, how much to states? We shall wait and see.

Apart from the treasure itself, it will be a huge boost to Poland's tourism industry. As I've long posited, Poland's tourist attractions are eclectic and niche. From heritage railways to equestrianism, from ornithology to military history, from kiteboarding to mountain biking, Poland is not a mainstream destination that pulls in the sun-seeking masses. Rather it is for legions of hobbyists of all sorts - people with more imagination - and typically spending cash - than the typical fortnight-in-Majorca types.

But sewing together all of Poland's vast tourist attractions into one package is nigh impossible. What can be done is to promote these multifarious draws directly to enthusiast communities around the world. Why not, for example, advertise Poland as a destination for bird-watching holidays directly to members (more than a million) of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds?

Poland's tourist attractions are scarcely known among well-informed Poles, let alone foreigners. The existence of truly top-notch wine producers here was entirely unknown to me until my daughter tasted a remarkable wine, brought some home, and prompted me to travel 1,100km across Poland and back to visit the vineyard and buy a few bottles.

The story of the gold train is symbolic of how many undiscovered treasures there are waiting to bring delight to the discerning tourist.

[Click here for update 29.08.2015]

This time last year:
A state built on lies

This time two years ago:
Asphalt for (some of) ul. Poloneza

This time three years ago:
Dominicans at large, Służew

This time five years ago:
Late summer moods, Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
The next one hundred years

This time seven years ago:
"What do we want? Early retirement!
When do we want it? NOW!"

This time eight years ago:
Twilight of Warsaw's greenhouse economy

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Hydrology - droughts, floods and sandbanks

Consider the following two photographs, both taken from the same point (at the estuary of the Jeziorka river, where it meets the Vistula). One was taken today - the other on 22 September 2012.

23 August 2015
22 September 2012
We'll have to wait a month to see whether the water levels in the Vistula fall to the same record low levels that they did three years ago, when the exposed riverbed yielded up historic artifacts, some dating back to the Swedish invasion of Poland in 1648.

While we wait, it is instructive to look at some satellite images of this very stretch of the Vistula over the years, courtesy of Google Earth. What's interesting is the way the sandbanks appear, disappear and shift over time. You can see the Jeziorka meeting the Vistula in the lower-middle of each pic. Sadly, there are no images of the floods of May/June 2010, nor of the drought of September 2012.

Image dated 3 April 2002

27 March 2007

23 July 2009

4 April 2011

1 May 2012

4 August 2013 - highest water in this sequence

11 March 2014 - lowest water in this sequence. Sandbank in second pic from top is visible.

4 October 2014
And so we have it - the river rises, the river falls, depending on the rain that falls in the mountains several hundred kilometers downstream. I will check back in a month's time - assuming the weather stays as dry as forecast - to see if that big sandbank has reappeared. In the meanwhile, don't place too much store on media panic. Nothing beats empiric observation of fact.

This time two years ago:
Radom air show - Part 1

This time three years ago:
Restricting passenger movement and safety

This time four years ago:
Seasonal fruit - eat it in bulk, while you can!

This time six years ago:
Russia-Polish 'unification', 1939-style

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Sad farewell to Lila

Below: the last photo taken of Lila. Within half an hour, she'd be dead; an hour later - buried.

Early last month, one of our neighbours found a dead cat on her drive - it looked like the black-and-white tom that fathered Lila's litter of four kittens. Early this month, we noticed that Lila was not well; her eyes were covering up with white film (the third eyelids, which were not retracting). After several visits to the vet - she had a fever for nearly two weeks - blood tests revealed the feline version of HIV, and leukaemia. Her immune system had packed up. She was hardly eating, lying down all day, skin and bone, unwilling to move. Because her condition was infectious, she was confined to the laundry room and garage.

She was put to sleep at the vets this morning, and buried in the garden, between six tall trees.

That's the factual stuff. The emotional and spiritual stuff is swirling around my head. Her little consciousness has been around us since Moni picked her off the streets of Łódź in spring 2012. She was just a few months old then. As a kitten she was playful, but she grew up early; by the time she was around a year old, she became pregnant, and on 10 May 2013, she gave birth to Czester, Feluś, Izadora and Bonus. Knowing that Bonus wouldn't make it, she kept carrying him by the scruff of his neck and leaving him somewhere where the interfering humans wouldn't find him. They did; despite several visits to the vet, the runt of the litter died of a lung infection at the age of three weeks.

There's no sentiment in nature; only we humans feel it.

I buried Lila in the garden, where her body will decompose into the soil; the immortal atoms that once conjoined harmoniously to form her conscious body will move on; through the roots of the trees and bushes into the leaves and fruit, to be pecked at by birds.

As I finished consigning her limp and lifeless body, once so playful, to the earth, a solitary hoverfly appeared and hung in the air over her grave in the August sunshine.

Lila's consciousness slipped inside this particular shell of foam. It observed, it learnt, it moved along that trajectory along which all our consciousnesses move - from Zero towards One. The body that carried that sliver, that scrap of feline consciousness might have begun the process of decomposition in the soil of our garden, but those atoms that once formed the living Lila will spin for ever.

Like Schroedinger's immortal cat, Lila is dead and not dead at the same time. In some other multiverse, she didn't contract the disease, and carried on to live a long and happy life.

All that remains is for me to grieve for her briefly; with a tin of Warka Strong, sitting in the field across the tracks, watching the planes take off from Okęcie, the trains trundling past, swifts, kestrels and cabbage white butterflies in the air, Lila will now always be an eternal part of Jeziorki.

Finally - some photos of Lila's life... Below: as a stray, visiting Jeziorki for the first time, before coming here to settle. Easter 2012.

Below: Lila fulfilled in motherhood. She brought four kittens into the world; just two survived her. One is the ginger tom, our beloved Czester. He had a blood test today to see whether or not he too was carrying the feline immunodeficiency virus. We find out in two weeks.

This time last year:
Your papers are in order, Panie Dembinski!

This time three years ago:
Topiary garden by the Vistula

This time four years ago:
Raymond's Treasure - a short story

Friday, 21 August 2015

Whatever happened to Poland's Amish?

Dutch Mennonites fled 16th Century religious persecution to America - where some of them are well-known as the Amish folk of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Poland also welcomed Mennonites (anabaptist followers of Menno Simons) ; they found Polish kings tolerant and welcoming - and their skills in taming waterways were highly sought after in Poland.

A few weeks back, I was exploring the banks of the Vistula near Kozienice on my motorbike. I came across villages called Holendry Kozienickie, Holendry Piotrkowskie and Holendry Kużmińskie. Checking the Polish gazetteer (download it here - 100,000 Polish place names on 2,627 pages), I find many traces of Mennonite settlement in Poland enshrined in toponyms. Holandia, Holenderki, Holendernia, Holendrów, Olender, Olendry, Olenderki - Olędry even (three of them). But that's just the places that were openly named after their founders.

The 'Holendrzy' (who later came from Germany - the common factor was their religion) tended to settle along the banks of waterways and lakes. The Vistula has a cluster of them between Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki and Płock. Kazuń Nowy, settled by Mennonites from Prussia after 1764, is an example.

Poland was densely forested and typical mechanisms of settlement would take the form of a group of people being given the right to clear ground for agriculture in exchange for future taxes to the landowner. The Holendrzy, who brought with them expertise in flood-protection and irrigation, contributed to the development of Polish agriculture by implementing practices brought over from the Low Countries. Simple ideas such as building cattle-sheds down river of human habitation, so when the river flooded, the animal dung would not be washed into houses. And planting poplars and willows in the floodplains, to break up and hold ice floes which might otherwise damage buildings.

The Mennonites would not take part in wars, they dressed in plain clothes without ornamentation, they were baptised once of an age at which they could understand their oaths. They worked hard and prospered. Most importantly, they kept themselves to themselves. While having good working relationships with the surrounding Polish population, they did not willingly intermarry nor assimilate. Mennonites did not welcome outsiders into their closed communities.Their numbers were smaller than their influence; the census of 1921 gave numbers of Polish citizens claiming to be Mennonites as a mere 1,500.

When the Second World War broke out, the Nazi invaders treated them as Volksdeutsche - ethnic Germans - despite the fact than many of their ancestors had fled Prussian persecution in previous centuries. This status led to the expulsion of remaining Holenders after 1945. Internment camps were set up for them - mainly women, children and old people, for men of fighting age would have been drafted into the Wehrmacht - there was one in Leoncin, between the Puszcza Kampinoska forest and the Vistula, for example. They were deported to East Germany in the late 1940s, thus ending nearly four hundred years of Mennonite settlement in Poland.

Traces of their existence here can still be found - not only in village names, but also cemeteries, barns and houses. Fortunately, they are relatively well documented (link here to English-language pages of and there is a partial list of Mennonite remains across Poland. Mazowsze itself is particularly well documented.

The story of Poland's Mennonites - quite unknown even among educated Poles today - is an interesting tale of refugees, migrants fleeing religious persecution. Poland was officially tolerant towards victims of the counter-reformation, and local landowners were quick to make use of the newcomers' skills and propensity for hard work. Yet by maintaining a strong ethnic and religious identity that set the Mennonites apart from the hosts, the seeds of their ultimate fate were in place.

This time last year:
PKP publishes plans for upgrade of Warsaw-Radom line

This time two years ago:
World's largest ship calls in at Gdańsk

This time four years ago:
Raymond's Treasure - a short story

This time five years ago:
Now an urban legend: Kebab factory under W-wa Centralna

This time six years ago:
It was twenty years ago today

This time eight years ago:
By bike to Czachówek again

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Drought (Part I, no doubt)

A dry August, day after day of blue skies, the heatwaves are abating, we've moving into late summer. Statistically, August is the second-wettest month of the year after July; this year there's been very little rain, and what rain has fallen has been in isolated thundery downpours.

Not a surprise then, that water-levels have fallen dramatically. Here in Jeziorki, the middle pond between ul. Trombity and ul. Dumki is drying up fast. I walk out most of the way across in my office shoes - the surface is hard enough for me not to subside into the smelly mud beneath the crust.

Below: looking north, the picture is more mixed - there's still water in the far pond. A few more weeks without serious rainfall and an east-west crossing on foot will become possible; should the drought continue into mid-autumn it may become to stroll through the reed-beds.

Below: stock media photo to illustrate 'drought'. Except this time it's at my back door.

Below: at the northern pond, there's still water enough for the swan family (which I photographed earlier this summer - see how the cygnets have grown).

Below: across the tracks - daisies in the stubble.

Below: not far from ul. Karczunkowska - good gosh - it's giant hogweed - barszcz sosnowskiego - the killer plant from Russia. This particular patch was notified to the Straż Miejska (urban wardens?) two years ago. It's still here because this is a privately-owned patch and the authorities don't have the power to walk in and eradicate this invasive and toxic weed.

I shall no doubt return to the subject of this drought; three years ago, the lowest water levels ever recorded on the Vistula occurred in late September.

FOLLOW-UP 2016: the hogweed patch has been comprehensively ploughed over, no sign of any re-infestation as of May.

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's ski slope at Szczęśliwice

This time last year:
On the road from Dobra, again

This time two years ago:
August storm, ul. Targowa

This time three years ago:
Warsaw Central's secret underground kebab factory

This time four years ago:
Cheap holidays in other people's misery

This time five years ago:
Steam welcomes us to Dobra

This time six years ago:
New houses appear in the fields by Zgorzała

Sunday, 16 August 2015

What I read each week

When people ask me the source of my broad general knowledge around economic and political issues, I reply that it comes from a third of a century of reading The Economist. I started when as an information officer at the Confederation of British Industry in the early 1980s; each week it would land on my desk and I'd flick through with - at that time - little more than a passing interest. Over the years, I found The Economist's style and argumentation more to my liking, as my political views matured. Since moving to Poland in 1997, it has become for me essential reading, a magazine I buy each week (indeed the only one I buy each week). Unlike many executives whose subscription copies lie in unopened piles, my Economist gets a thorough read over the course of the week, and over time that general knowledge builds up.

Last month, rumours began to fly around that following its sale of the Financial Times, its owner, Pearson, would be selling its stake in The Economist. When it transpired that the FT was being bought by a Japanese publisher, there was a general shrugging of shoulders, Rolls-Royce Motors and Bentley are owned by the Germans, Jaguar and Land-Rover by the Indians, so the transfer of ownership of the FT to Nikkei did not provoke much comment. But  it would be worrying were The Economist, said to be the UK's most powerful foreign-policy tool (yes, far more powerful than the BBC), slip into the hands of a rich and vain owner, determined to have such influence for himself.

But the worry was unfounded - Pearson owned a non-controlling 50% stake in the title, the rest was in the hands of - yes, four very rich and powerful families - the Agnellis, Rothschilds, Cadburys and Schroders, with the Agnellis' holding company Exor owning 43.3% of the Economist Group. Now, those families, in particular the Agnellis, have taken over the Pearson stake. And the fact that the editor of The Economist has been an ex-officio member of the Bilderberg Group, gives added ammunition for those who believe that the world is run by a small, secretive and self-selected coterie peddling its own sinister agenda. [To look at what can happen when a respected title gets into the wrong hands, read this.]

The Economist's influence is sorely needed in a troubled world. Though it is seen as a liberal (economically and socially) title, promoting deregulation and privatisation, it is far more nuanced than critics usually admit. Sustainability is also a core value, at its heart the sense that ever-increasing inequality cannot be good for the economy. The Economist realises also that modern free-market democracies function as well as their regulators let them. The role of the state is not questioned - just how efficiently the state functions. Corruption and rent-seeking are corrosive and at their heart stifle human innovation and hold back the individual's ability to make the most of their potential. Editorially, The Economist takes a more balanced approach than simple free-market fundamentalism.

Year on year, The Economists continues to extend its sales, its reach and thus its influence. Read by 5.6 million people around the world (mostly still the paper version, but with increasing digital readership), the title is a hit with policymakers around the world. From the Audit Bureau of Circulation:
The [Economist's] net audience totals per region are as follows:
  • North America: 3,389,433
  • United Kingdom: 501,343
  • Continental Europe: 648,959
  • Middle East and Africa: 94,411
  • Asia Pacific: 546,546
  • Latin America: 94,590
Its writing style is clear - but not for dummies. Elegant prose, often with a humorous touch, makes reading The Economist a pleasure. It also makes for the best material on which to polish your English. Most Economist journalists are Oxbridge graduates; if non-native speakers can learn to write like The Economist writes, glittering careers in multinational corporations await. Incidentally, the authors write anonymously. Standardising (not standardizing) on UK-English (labour, lift) rather than US-English (labor, elevator), The Economist does make one stylistic concession to its North American readership - dates are given as August 16th, 2015, and not the usual 16 August 2015 found in most British newspapers.

[Slightly off topic, but while talking about The Economist's circulation, I can report that sometime this morning, this blog had its millionth page-view since Google started counting in May 2010]

New features surprise and delight. The World If... and Science Brief have just appeared. Smartphone users wake up to the daily Espresso short news analysis clips. And online, there's many articles that don't make it into the print edition.

I buy the Economist at the newsstand wherever I am when it becomes available. This may be Warsaw, it may be London (as indeed this week). I travel a fair bit, which is why I've been reticent to subscribe and benefit from the lower issue price. There's nothing worse than walking past a brand-new copy at an airport newsstand on a Friday, passing on the purchase because you know it will be in your post-box the next Monday (or Tuesday). However, having a smartphone now gives me access to the content the moment it's uploaded (Thursday evening). So I have just now, for the first time, bought myself an annual subscription for paper version with full digital access for €226.

Incidentally, Pearson has divested itself of the two jewels in its crown - the FT and its half-stake in The Economist - to focus exclusively on its education business. Education business is like the brewing business. It can be done better, with greater passion, by people nearer the end-user. I do not foresee a happy future for Pearson.

This time last year:
Defending Poland, contributing to NATO

This time three years ago:
Balloon over Warsaw

This time five years ago:
Happiness, Polish-style

This time six years ago:
And watch the river flow...

Sunday, 9 August 2015

To Winnica Jakubów - for Poland's finest wine

A few weeks ago, Moni visited a Polish wine festival in Łódź. She'd tried a few wines - and came across one that really impressed her. To the extent that she spent 67 złotys of her student income on a single bottle - one she brought home to Jeziorki. Hibernal 2014, by Winnica Jakubów, a dry white. We tried it the same night after chilling it accordingly.

I must say this was among the best three wines I've tasted over the past decade (the other two being a Chilean Pinot Noir from Casillero del Diablo, the other being the first New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region I tried, Oyster Bay).

So impressed was I that I wrote to the the owner of Winnica Jakubów, asking where I could buy this outstanding wine. He wrote back saying I should visit the winery - which I did. I rode 1,300km from Warsaw to Głogów and back on my motorbike, taking two days to get there and two days to get back, taking a back-roads route, passing Łowicz, Łęczyca, Sieradz, Krotoszyn, Rawicz and Kalisz on the way.

Three wines from Jakubów won medals. The semi-sweet Solaris won gold medal among the white wines, the Hibernal (related to Riesling) won bronze. Jakubów's rosé won gold in the rosé category.

Jakubów is in the west of Poland; if you draw a line from Wrocław to Poznań, it's to the west of that line. Near Głogów, near Polkowice - copper country, with lots of KGHM mines dotted around the landscape, which is hilly, not the flatlands of the Polish plains. This was Germany before WWII, but Polish for centuries before that. The Wzgórza Dałkowskie rise up to 230m above sea level between the Odra and Szprotawa rivers. And on these sunny uplands I find the south-facing slopes on which the Pajdosz family has planted three hectares of grapes, near the village of Jakubów.

The secret of the wines that come from Jakubów is partly the terroir - the vineyards are ringed by the woods of a nature reserve, haunted by birds of prey that keep the starlings off the grapes. There are three horse-riding stables nearby; manure from the horses is the only fertiliser used. It is also the intense dedication of the owners, hard-working perfectionists, determined to create the best wines possible. One grape plant produces but 300cl of the sweet wine.

Below: in the cool of the tasting cellar, out of the roasting heat outside. Nearly all of what Jakubów produces is snapped up by canny restaurateurs. I literally bought the last three bottles of last year's Hibernal; the gold medal-winning rosé has sold out. I tried several whites, all of which impressed, not a single dull taste. The climate ensures the right balance between acidity and sweetness. Too much sun = too sweet, not enough complexity. This is one of Planet Earth's more northerly vineyards, at 51 degrees, 36 minutes North.

As well as whites and rosés, Jakubów produces a fruity red using a Moldovan grape variety with red pulp and a characteristic cherry note. It is refreshing and fun. Production from last year was limited to just these three oak barrels (the oak makes a noticeable difference to the less-exclusive reds that mature in stainless steel vats).

Jakubów itself is certainly worth a visit. With five buildings listed in the national heritage register, including the 14th Century church with a holy well (below). The church of St James bears the symbol of the scallop shell, for it is on the pilgrims' route from Głogów to Santiago de Compostela. The church itself looks quite English, does it not? The brick-built 19th C. bell-tower (not in shot) is more Germanic in character. German viticulture existed around Zielona Góra (then Grünberg in Schlesien), and even in communist-era Poland, white wine was produced around here. The Jakubów vineyard, however, is a very much 21st-Century venture, making the most of what nature brings to this region.

Below: the palace ruins at Jakubów, mindlessly devastated by the Red Army in February 1945. Three months later, the village was under Polish administration. There's a wealth of historical information about the village, the church and the place here (in Polish and German). Horse-riding is another attraction that Jakubów offers. However, as of now, there's no bed-and-breakfast (agroturystyka) facilities in the village, but nearby Głogów does have a couple of hotels.

I bought as much wine as I could - just three bottles of Hibernal. Production of the 2014 vintage was limited to 270 bottles - so I have over 1% of the total! Not one to be stowed away for any length of time, as it will begin to go off in two-three years' time. But - fingers crossed - this season will be a good one, with plenty of sun right into October. "A week's sunshine in October is worth a month's sunshine in summer," is the saying. And the Pajdosz family have bought three more hectares on an adjacent plot, and will be preparing to plant grapes there next season.

Given that the very first Polish wine I tried was so utterly excellent, I must try to hunt down some more. Because production is small-scale, there are no cooperatives bulk-buying second- and third-rate grapes to mix together to make cheap plonk. And because the climate is colder, with late frosts into May, and early frosts from October, the fruit imparts unique qualities to the wine. The best Polish wines are made by people who care intensely about the quality of their produce. It is neither cheap, nor easy to get hold of. But it is definitely worth exploring further.

The more I dig deeper into Poland there more I find there is to be discovered. This is partly because there's so much off the beaten track (Warsaw-Kraków/Zakopane-Sopot), so much of it takes ages to get too, so little is available in English-language guidebooks, and so few Poles themselves know their own country well.

But this is changing. Infrastructure investments are opening up Poland and shortening journey times. What used to take four-and-half hours now takes two hours. The internet offers access to new information that otherwise would not see the light of day. And Most importantly, Poles are seizing the opportunities that a free-market democracy offers. Find a business opportunity - and tourism is a huge one - work hard at it and pass on a growing family firm, confident that it won't get expropriated by the State.

All over rural Poland the miracle is taking hold. In years to come, Poland as a tourist destination will offer varied and fascinating offerings for enthusiasts seeking to discover something truly new and original.

This time last year:
Eat Polish apples, drink Polish cider

This time two years ago:
Hottest week ever (37C likely to be beaten this week)

This time three years ago:
Progress along the second line of the Warsaw Metro (now a normal part of city life)

This time four years ago:
Doric arches, ul. Targowa

This time five years ago:
A place in the country, everyone's ideal

This time eight years ago:
I must go down to the sea again

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Summer in the city

After a slide-show of bucolic pastoralism at the city's edge, some photos of the heart of Warsaw basking in the glorious summer sunshine. August seems to have forgotten to bring rainstorms (the prevailing winds bringing rain to England in abundance, then leaving Poland dry).

Below: ul. Grzybowska (between Marszałkowska and Al. JPII) More new building popping up. A great city-centre location for a flat, with Cent-Room just two tram stops away, Ogród Saski across the way and beyond it the Old Town. And hundreds of big-name employers within walking distance. My father's earliest childhood was spent on ul. Grzybowska, further west from here, around ul. Żelazna.

One of two big skyscraper projects nearing completion (the other being Warsaw Spire). This below is Q22 on Al. JPII, being built where the Hotel Mercure Frederic Chopin once stood. The 1990s hotel, where I used to stay during my very first business trips to Warsaw in 1995, was pulled down to make way for this magnificent building, which adds tremendously to the vista when looking south towards Rondo ONZ.

Below: view from Zebra Tower looking down over Rondo Jazdy Polskiej and Pole Mokotowskie beyond. Exactly 71 years ago, my father made his way across these very fields - then covered in cabbage - after his AK unit's (Batalion Odwet) unsuccessful assault on the SS barracks at Kolonia Stasica (just to the south of Pole Mokotowskie). Under machine gun fire from the Germans, careful to avoid making a noise trampling cabbages at night, my father crossed the Pole Mokotowskie to make it to the line held by Batalion Golski. And here he fought, based for most of the Uprising at ul. Noakowskiego 18, until the capitulation in early October.

Back to the area around my office, the view from ul. Twarda (below) towards Al. JPII. In the foreground, the lower reaches of the Cosmopolitan building on Twarda 2/4, beyond the Spektrum building nearer the corner of Twarda and Al. JPII. Warsaw is filling up with beautiful neo-modernism, which in time should drown out the tainted neo-classicism of the Palace of Culture.

Below: homeward bound via W-wa Zachodnia station, where work is under way on a new station building (this used to be my candidate for Worst Railway Station In Poland, vying with Kutno Miasto). Much work has already been done at platform level and in the tunnel beneath the platforms in terms of passenger information. But a proper booking hall and retail space is sorely needed - and it's being built right now.

Summer in Warsaw attracts more and more foreign tourists. Today I could hear French, Spanish, American, Israeli and Italian tourists making their way around Our City. Twenty-six years ago, Warsaw merited an entry in P.J. O'Rourke's book Holidays From Hell. What a change there's been over those years, eh readers?

Tomorrow a four-day excursion into the heart of Poland, in search of a particular bottle of the Most Excellent Polish wine.

This time last year:
The architecture of the Birkenhead Tunnel

This time two years ago:
Behold and See - short story, part II

This time three years ago:
Signs of progress along the S2 - Lotnisko to Puławska

This time six years ago:
Warsaw's walls bear witness

Monday, 3 August 2015

Country life in a capital city

A beautiful sunny summer's afternoon - I got off the train a stop early, at W-wa Dawidy, and walked home from there through the fields. Here I am, at the edge of the capital of the sixth-largest member state of the world's wealthiest trading bloc, and the scene is totally bucolic. Pastoral. Rural. Not in the least suburban.

Living around here is good for my soul. There is peace that contrasts with the dynamism of central Warsaw just eight stations to the north; a bonding with the Eternal. Summer like a thousand summers before.

Under the welcome shade of a small grove that grows across the path from the railway line towards ul. Kórnicka. It is hot, over 30C.

Further on towards ul. Kórnicka. Fields on either side of a drainage ditch.

A neatly-mowed south-facing lawn. Beyond, houses along ul. Baletowa.

And when I got home this evening, I heard a disturbing sound, like a giant transport helicopter coming in to land. But no - it's harvest time. Usually I'm on holiday when the neighbours bring in their crop. This year I find they're using a combine harvester.

Amazing. I never witnessed scenes like this in Perivale - also nine miles from the centre of town. Jeziorki remains bucolically rustic, rustically pastoral, pastorally bucolic.

Yet urbanism is creeping in, albeit slowly. Looking back over the years on Google Earth, you can see how Mysiadło, Nowa Iwiczna, Jozefowsław and Piaseczno are expanding each year; new housing estates fill the fields, now ripe, to quote John Betjeman, for development. But while Okęcie airport's flight path remains, the fields around Jeziorki will stay agricultural for decades to come. I hope!

This time two years ago:
My ogród is my działka

This time three years ago:
Poland's 'lemmings' will sink the Right

This time four years ago:
Mazowieckie province tempts with mini- and micro-breaks

This time five years ago:
Pride and anger