Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Boris Bikes arrive in Warsaw

Having praised the near-ubiquitous Boris Bikes that have revolutionised cycling in Central London, it's good to see that a similar scheme has just been introduced in Warsaw.

Above: the bikes have just appeared and are immediately attracting attention. Having taken a close look at the instructions (in four languages - Polish, English, German and Russian), I must say they are not entirely clear.

There's a requirement for pre-registration, which initially stunted the take-up of Boris Bikes in London. After six months, procedures were simplified and mere possession of a credit card can allow a tourist in London to ride off with a hire bike (if it's not returned, the credit card is simply debited for the amount). And the London scheme, launched in June 2010 with 5,000 bikes, was supported with advertising from the outset, whilst Warsaw's Veturilo bikes are still without a sponsor.

Full details of the new Warsaw scheme (in English) here. (The registration page does not yet work on the English version of the site).

As the sign-up fee is a mere 10 złotys, I have registered, and look forward to wizzing around central Warsaw on a... Hanna Bike? Probably not. Unlike London's mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz Waltz is not associated with bicycles and cycling, even though under her watch the provision of cycle paths has greatly improved (her predecessor's highways spokesman claimed that the bicycle was the vehicle of the backward countryside). I promise my readers a test-ride as soon I get a pass-code sent to me by e-mail.

Today I rode my bike to Ursynów Park+Ride, over the new footbridge with cycle ramps (HURRAH! AT LAST! AT LAST! OPEN AT LAST!) to Las Kabacki, through to ul. Moczydłowska, and thence by cycle path nearly all the way to the P+R. Nearly I write, because the road engineers have stopped the path just short of its gates, it's devilishly difficult for cyclists to get to. Dismounting and crossing two busy roads as a pedestrian is the only legal way. Anyway, no time for moans - let's now celebrate the new footbridge over Puławska (below). It's the same design as the one on Al. Niepodległości linking both parts of Pole Mokotowskie, nicely profiled for easy climbs and gentle descents (skid marks show at least one rushing cyclist has slammed into the barriers!)

Even more reason to dump the car and make the most of the summer, get on your bike and ride (if only to the P+R), take Metro into town, then ride to your final destination on a hire-bike.

This time last year:
Getting ready for the 'W'-hour flypast

This time two years ago:
A century of Polish scouting

Monday, 30 July 2012

Too good to last

There was something fishy about OLT Express, the Polish low-cost airline that ceased flying on Friday. To my mind a low-cost airline that could a) fly out of Okęcie, b) serve complementary snacks c) allocate seating at check-in rather than by elbow-sharpness and d) do all the above for 99 złotys would not stay in business very long. Flying from Gdańsk to Warsaw with OLT (the initials, remarkably, stand for Ostfriesischelufttaxi) earlier this month, I calculated that an Airbus A320 carrying 150 passengers each paying (say) an average of 150 złotys including airport charges and taxes, would net the airline 22,500 złotys. From this must come the cost of jet fuel (currently $3 a gallon - an A320 burns two of these a kilometre - that's already one-third of the revenue); wages of cockpit crew (pilot and co-pilot) and cabin crew of four; ground handling; aircraft leasing costs and maintenance; airport costs and marketing. And snacks. Incidentally, a nearly-new Airbus A320 costs around $50m. Can you see paying for that lot out of 22,500 złotys? I can't.

Three flights each morning between Warsaw and Gdańsk and three back again; in the evening too; flights from Warsaw to Szczecin, Wrocław and Rzeszów; direct flights from Kraków and from Katowice to Gdańsk, Łódź and Bydgoszcz also on the map; plans for flights to European destinations including several in the UK (a much-desired Warsaw-Edinburgh connection was advertised). Wow! These guys had plans.

Above: we shall not see its like again over Jeziorki - fifty million bucks' worth of A320 in OLT Express livery. An unnamed Polish airport official told Gazeta Wyborcza that his suspicions were raised when he was negotiating landing fees with OLT Express that unlike all other airlines he's done business with, these guys did not try to haggle the price down at all, but accepted the airport's first offer.

To me, this was a built-to-flip business model - get the finance to launch, initiate the service, fill seats well in advance - then quickly sell the business as a going concern, there'd be debt, yes, but long-term prospects of an airline that could establish a secure niche for itself in face of laggardly competition from state-owned LOT. Get the customers, raise prices, cut costs - and bingo, a new competitor for WizzAir, RyanAir or EasyJet.

The strangest thing about OLT Express was the company that owned it - Amber Gold, a curious institution (without a Wikipedia page - usually a bad sign) offering curiously high interest rates on 'investing in gold'. Amber Gold's billboards were almost as common a feature on the streets of Polish cities as OLT Express's. You can read more on the Politics, Economy, Society blog; I concur with Student SGH's analysis that the current spate of big-name bankruptcies presage a sea-change in Poland's economic fortunes.

And odd sentiment, but late-June, early-July 2012 might just have been a turning point; after a dazzling summer when everything was starting to come right, things might start to unravel. I sincerely hope I'm wrong.

As it is, OLT Express may well yet attract buyers willing to pick up the assets at fire-sale prices. If not, it will be the third major failure of a Polish attempt to launch a low-cost airline after Air Polonia and CentralWings). In the meanwhile, LOT has unsurprisingly lifted the prices of its own internal flights. It was an all-too brief dream - quick and cheap travel around Poland.

UPDATE - Tuesday 31 July - at lunch we saw OLT Express billboards on a building on ul. Krucza. By the time I left the office, they'd gone. How long will the Amber Gold billboard remain on Al. Jerozolimskie?

This time last year:
Poland's Baltic coast as a holiday destination

This time three years ago:
The Warsaw they fought and died for?

This time five years ago:
Floods, rainbows and hope

Back home late

Our WizzAir flight [W6 1306 29 JUL 1245] from 'London' Luton to Monty Modlin International was delayed - not by 45 minutes, or some piffling short time like that - but by nine and half hours.

Having received an SMS from WizzAir saying that due to the Olympics we should turn up for our flight three hours early, we dutifully did, returned our car to EasyRent at 'Luton' Slip End (a good way from the airport) in time to get to check-in with the above-mentioned margin. Once again, I was taken in by Wizz - it was ludicrous scaremongering. Though there were crowds, check-in and security were Most efficient, so once again, we ended up airside with plenty of time to do nothing but wait.

It soon transpired that our flight (due to depart at 12:45) was late; departure time was given as 13:30. The gate was called, we boarded, just as the sky began to darken dramatically. Just as the plane nosed onto the runway, the heavens opened, accompanied by lightning. The take-off was aborted. As second attempt was also aborted. The captain told us we'd have to refuel before we could try to take off again. We waited on the apron amid a biblical downpour. It would be too risky to refuel with all this lightning about. The storm passed - but the crew could now no longer fly as they'd exceed their maximum hours of work. A new crew needed to be flown in. A bus came and took us back to the terminal building three hours after we'd left it.

I have no gripes with safety in the air. Better that the captain had twice aborted take-off than we crash. Better than we have a fresh crew than have one trying to get us back to Modlin that has been working continuously for the past 14 hours. And there was no lack of information; we were kept up to date pretty well in the circumstances (nine flights affected out of Luton by the storm).

Right: our plane parked up on the apron under angry skies - it would remain here for several hungry hours. We received but £5 in vouchers to sustain us - and here's my gripe. This was enough to buy Eddie and me two sandwiches, one fruit salad and one fruit juice. Not enough to sustain body and soul for the extra seven hours by which we were delayed. And once we'd boarded the plane that would finally fly us to Poland - over twelve hours after we'd arrived at Luton - the food was full price. This is extremely poor customer service. No nod towards the tired and hungry passengers who would fly into Modlin not at 16:10 as per timetable (in effect the contract we had with WizzAir) but at 01:40. By the time we'd got our bags off the carousel and gone through customs, it was 02:00. Meteorological acts of God one can accept as things that airlines have to bear in mind when it comes to operational issues - but please - don't let your passengers go hungry!

Above: revolt of the Polish mums and grans at Luton. Despite the rain, the aircrew kept us waiting on the stairs for a good 20 minutes. It was chilly for those in T-shirts; small children, extremely tired, extremely hungry and getting colder by the minute. The mums marched up the stairs, entered the plane and stood their ground. Extra customer training needed for WizzAir staff is a must. Below: also tired and hungry and lugging a trendy 'retro' suitcase rather than a more practical one with wheels, Eddie makes his way to the terminal building at Monty Modlin International. We should have been here at 16:10 on Sunday; this is 01:40 on Monday.

The rest of the journey home went without a hitch. A bus took us to central Warsaw for 33zł each in a mere 40 minutes (the roads are pretty much empty at this time). The bus terminates at the Uniwersam car park on Al. Jerozolimskie, by W-wa Śródmieście WKD. A taxi (CitiTaxi corporation) was on hand to take us home at a 1.80zł/km fare, which came to 50zł. Rapid, efficient and cheap - from leaving the airport to getting back to Jeziorki took us a little over an hour and cost 116zł for the two of us. Modlin is not a such bad place to fly to.

WizzAir again? I don't like their 'cut every corner' approach to customer care. They could have given £10 vouchers and handed out free food on board. That would have made all the difference between being seen as a sympathetic carrier and one that tries to screw the customer at every turn.

WizzAir again? We'll be booking early for Christmas - with BA to London proper - London Heathrow. Eddie says 'Wizz never again'. I'm not so sure - one gets what one pays for, tak krawiec kraje, jak mu materii staje, as Monty Modlyn's old dad must have said.

Well, it's quarter to five - broad daylight outside, time to get some sleep. I have two TV and one radio appearance today...

Friday, 27 July 2012

Llanbedrog beach, and a farewell to Wales

Our last full day in Penrhos; tomorrow a return to London, on Sunday a return to Warsaw, and on Monday a return to work. Today we visit Llanbedrog beach, the nearest to Penrhos. Shingle and pebbles rather than sand, but a south-facing shore and sheltered bay mean warmer (and indeed safer, for it's almost wave-free here) bathing. I actually braved a full dip and spent some twenty minutes in the sea.

Overlooking the sea, a rocky headland jutting out into Cardigan Bay. Beyond, Warren Beach, its car park no longer accessible to non-residents (a shame - a family-friendly beach that boasts fine sand). It's a six-minute climb to the top of the headland - there's a viewpoint near the top on which stands a large steel sculpture of a fisherman. Eddie and I climb up there.

We are rewarded by spectacular views. Left: Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) towers up over the seaside flats overlooking the beach at Pwllheli.  This photo nicely illustrates how the Polish holiday conundrum 'góry czy morze?' (mountains or seaside) is not an issue in North Wales. The country's highest peak within easy reach of the finest beaches. I must say, a week is nowhere near long enough to explore this part of the world. We focused on the beaches rather on the mountains, but Snowdon's worth climbing, as are the lesser peaks of the Llyn itself. North Wales has many outstanding 'must-visit' tourist attractions including Caernarfon castle, the Ffestiniog Railway (now connected to the Welsh Highland Railway to create a 40-mile steam ride), the Llechwedd slate quarries and dozens of others. As long as it's not pouring down, there's much do see and do.

Right: a view across Llanbedrog beach, taking in its colourful beach huts, the village beyond, and then in the distance Carn Boduan. From up there, you can see both sides of the Llyn Peninsula.

This has become a very special place for me; 15 times I've been here, my brother and his family have been here seven times. After five years away, the Llyn has lost none of its magic for me, and I hope that one day I shall once more return - and that the weather gods will again be smiling upon us.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

North coast of the Llyn Peninsula

We're staying on the south side of the peninsula and have visited south- and west-facing beaches. Let's now cross the Llyn to look at the north coast. One of my favourite places here is Porthdinllaen, a natural harbour sheltered from the sea by a headland curling around the bay. From the golf course (Welsh: cwrs golff), one catches first sight of the village.

Below: another view of Porthdinllaen, this time from the beach. Mist and drizzle - usual meteorological  conditions in a part of the UK where the Polish concept of mikroklimat is highly visible. Just ten miles away, on the other side of the Llyn, it can be brilliantly sunny - or vice-versa. You don't need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but it helps. The BBC weather website has proved very accurate this week.

Below: inside the Tŷ Coch ('red house') Inn, the building to the left of the group in the above photo. It's gone up-market since my first visit some 20 years ago, when it was less well-known. Bar prices are some 35% higher than in most pubs on the Llyn.

Below: another interior view of the Tŷ Coch. A plethora of nautical nick-nacks and antique artefacts remind me of Maszoperia on Hel.

Below: the old lifeboat station in Porthdinllaen, now converted into a residential property. The current lifeboat station is now located at the tip of the foreshore. It's not long after high tide, but during neap tides and storms, the sea level can cover the footpath (left).

Below: it's still misty as Eddie and I walk back towards Morfa Nefyn. After our morning walk, we'll make our way to meet my brother and his family for a sunny afternoon on the beach at Porth Oer.

Below: Porth Oer, or Whistling Sands, looking north. My personal choice for finest beach in the entire United Kingdom, a sublime place. 

A tidal reflection - the amplitude of tides around the British Isles is vastly greater than on the Baltic. Is this because British beaches are very gently sloped? Or the fact that open sea surrounds the islands rather than it being an enclosed basin?

Above: Porth Oer looking south. The brochures claim this is only one of two such beaches in Europe where the sand 'whistles' as you walk over it - caused by the fineness of the grains. If so, I must have visited the other five (unless you count the entire Polish Baltic coast as one beach, which in theory you can). The sand whistles underfoot also in Międzyzdroje, Kołobrzeg, on Hel and Gdańsk's Jelitkowo and Stogi beaches.

I braved the sea - it was painfully cold. Nearly all the bathers were wearing wet-suits; even in late July the coastal waters of the British Isles do not make for enjoyable swimming. The Baltic is decidedly warmer!

This time last year:
The Accursed Soldiers - a short story

This time two years ago:
Driving impressions of the Toyota Yaris
[Two years on - no imperfections to report whatsoever]

This time four years ago:
Poland's dry summer

This time five years ago:
The UK's wettest summer ever
[five years on: wettest April, wettest June, wettest first week of July ever]

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

We do like to be beside the seaside

When the sun shines on the Llyn Peninsula, it is heavenly. Warmth (though never too hot by the water's edge) and - peaceful. We're back at Porth Neigwl (Hell's Mouth - which it can be, though not today). Just look at how quiet the beach is, and what a broad expanse of sand. The tide is running out; the sandy stretch is getting wider and wider. Below: looking east.

Below: looking westward - to prove that whichever way you look, the beach is looking pretty empty for the holiday season. We are near the southernmost point of the peninsula; the further away from the towns, the wilder it gets. Abersoch - a popular holiday destination with the yachting community, is only some four miles away, and yet it is splendidly isolated here.

Below: Eddie and Ciocia Jane are trying out the water. They are braver than me - I'm happier getting submerged in the Baltic than I am even dipping my feet into Cardigan Bay. Click here for some visual contrasts with the best bit of the Baltic I've seen (admittedly I've only been five times in recent years).

Below: back from the beach, a view from outside the cottage where my brother and his family are staying. Splendid views, but the land falls away in steep cliffs.  

More tomorrow - the weather should hold, so we're hoping for a return to Porth Oer (Whistling Sands).

A tangible impression of Africa

I have just finished reading Heban by Ryszard Kapuściński (English title: The Shadow of the Sun). Having previously professed no interest in Africa whatsoever (certainly of ever visiting it), the book offered me an encapsulation of that continent written in a thoroughly compelling manner full of insight. As a foreign correspondent, Kapuściński found himself in Africa when the process of de-colonisation was in full swing. Heban is a collection of reportages; we jump from Zanzibar to Dakar, from Addis Ababa to Rwanda, from the scorched wastes of the Sahara to malaria-infested jungle.

In each chapter, Kapuściński strives to explain what it is that makes Africa Africa - why the continent is handicapped in its efforts to develop.

First and foremost - the climate. The author portrays nature's pace as frenetic - the cycle of reproduction, birth, growth, disease, death and decay as happening much faster than in northern Europe. The human response to this - is to slow down. Waiting, passively waiting for something to happen. Time, which dictates the life of northerners, is an abstract in Africa. The climate is deadly. Malaria strikes, cobras bite, crocodiles lurk in rivers. Get lost in the desert and you die of thirst and heat exhaustion. Exertion and effort are to be avoided, especially around midday. Shade and draught become luxuries; having a home on hill, where a gentle breeze can waft through the rooms bringing blessed relief.

Human existence is primarily about subsistence, surviving from mealtime to mealtime. Misfortunes occur because witches and sorcerers will them upon the misfortunate, accidents, disease, natural calamities - drought or flood - are not the result of human neglect, but are occurrences of supernatural provenance. Subsistence means not having possessions. Owning things makes little sense if you cannot be sure you'll live through to the end of the week. Not having possessions means you are mobile - you can take your cooking pot, your shirt, your spoon, and move on should drought or flood, war or famine befall you.

The only way to survive in such a world is through one's strong bond with one's clan. Your family - immediate and extended - will provide, provided you provide. Your clan will protect you and yours against the evil eye. Night falls instantly in Africa, and as it does, all manner of supernatural forces rise up to stalk the jungles. Religions of all sorts offer succour, sense and order. A cock's feather, a tooth, on a string across the threshold of your hut or across a path in the jungle, is hugely significant and beneficial.

Colonialism was a disaster for Africa. Thousands of tribes, hundreds of thousands of clans, were forced into a mere score of so colonies, arbitrarily drawn onto inadequate maps by European rulers, interested only in gold and slaves. De-colonisation was a disaster for Africa - the white man left without thinking through the fall-out. A first wave of African rulers turned out to be corrupt and incompetent. They were replaced in a succession of bloody military coups (several of which were witnessed by Kapuściński) that were popular at first, and then the leaders (Idi Amin, Samuel Doe, Mengistu Haile Mariam) become bloody despots themselves.

If the natural circumstances of Africa form one pillar of the book, the human ones - their provenance and prognoses - form the other. The tragedies of Liberia and Rwanda are analysed; at the heart of them are botched intervention of White Man, tribalism and unthinkably inhuman barbarism. He charts the rise of warlords, how during the Cold War, they served as proxies for the West or its Soviet adversary, how they live to extract whatever they can from terrorised local communities - and when they can extract no more, they sit around a peace table and are given funds from Western governments. Although he didn't coin the phrase 'lumpenmilitariat', he describes the child-soldiers, fearless, barbaric, easily manipulated - that armed with Soviet-made weaponry, are the warlords' cannon-fodder. Africa's wars, inchoate and undocumented, are an intractable evil.

Is there a way out for Africa? Kapuściński continually alludes to it but never openly says it - what Africa needs is infrastructure; a massive road building programme to open up its interior, criss-crossing it with highways, linking communities with proper roads and proper drains. Eradication of hunger and disease maybe noble goals, but a focus on infrastructure delivery will speed these up.

Kapuściński ends with a description of village life, somewhere along the borderlands between the parched Sahara and the continent's interior. The centre of social activity is the tree - the one remaining tree that's not been cut down for firewood. It offers something of vital importance in Africa - shade. It is here that the children study, it is here that the village gets together to discuss the issues of the day, and to swap the stories that bind the community and form its aural history. Shade - and water - bring life to Africa.

There is growing controversy surrounding the life and works of Kapuściński (as the Wikipedia article linked at the top of this post suggests). The recent translation into English of his biography by Artur Domosławski was reviewed in the Economist, and below you will hear an interview with its Central and Eastern Europe editor Edward Lucas about Kapuściński.

These flaws in Kapuściński's adherence to the strict parameters of truth do have an impact on the way a reader reacts to some of the first-person narrative found in the book. The famous scenes with the cobra, or the broken-down truck in the Sahara - were the situations really as dangerous as the author paints them? Indeed - does it matter? Does a bit of dramatic exaggeration not enhance our read?

In the end, I think had I read the book not doubting a word of its veracity, it may have proved just very slightly more powerful. As it was, here and there I'd leave a bit of a margin, but on the whole, Kapuściński's reportage has provided me with a huge step in my understanding of Africa. I'm grateful to him for having written it the way he wrote it - and I'm very glad to have read it; I am intellectually richer for the experience. Africa is not something I'd thought about before, now I feel I have gulped down a huge chunk of wise insight about a hitherto largely unknown continent.

Above all, the thought that keeps coming back to me after having read Heban concerns civilisation. It is the removal of uncertainty about the future that allows mankind to become ever more civilised.

This time last year:
Jeziorki sunset, late July

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki sunset, after the storm

This time five years ago:
Rural suburbias - the ideal place to live?

The beauty of Portmeirion

Portmeirion in North Wales is one of those places that you simply must visit in your life. Testament to one man's dream - this is an architectural folly, an Italianate village built over a period of 50 years by architect Sir Clough Williams Ellis. He bought the land in the 1920s, and over the next five decades, he turned his fantastic vision into reality. Below: a general view of Portmeirion from the gazebo overlooking the village.

Below: let's zoom in to take a closer view. Remember - we are in North Wales (Cymru Gogledd) - a rugged land of volcanoes and chapels, and these domes and spires of Italianate architecture are somewhat unusual here.

Below: the Welsh estuarine setting, looking out over the river Dwyryd. Portmeirion served as the location of 1960s cult TV show The Prisoner - a series which has not lost its resonance to this day. Both Eddie and his cousin Hoavis are Prisoner fans, so our trip here today was preceded and followed by viewings of episodes of the TV show.

Below: the first views of the village are breathtaking. Be sure to come here on a sunny day to catch that Mediterranean climate.

Below: Eddie, wearing his grandfather's 1960s shades, overlooking one of Portmeirion's piazzas. Eddie was stricken by the place - an inspiration; something to draw, to emulate, to dream about. Portmeirion is such a success, culturally, historically, economically - one wonders why there aren't dozens of places like this all over the UK. Indeed, why isn't there such a place in Poland. Or why there aren't such places in Germany, the USA, Australia - the idea is so brilliant, it should be replicated world-wide.

Below: the stone boat, a famous feature of the Village. It's called Amis Reunis - reunited friends. It features in the Prisoner episodes. It is indeed symbolic. What is true - and what is false. A boat that looks the part - but can never set sail.

Below: the domed building, which in the Prisoner serves as the house of Number 2.  "I am not a number - I am a free man" - the central message of the series continues to inspire people watching it for the first time. A message as important to Britain today, where citizens are invigilated by the State's CCTV cameras, as it is to Poland, where every citizen is reduced to a series of numbers.

This time last year:
On motivation - what makes you... go?

Monday, 23 July 2012

More from Penrhos

A dull day with some light rain in the morning and some drizzle; Eddie and I went for a local walk - to Pwllheli along the beach, by bus from Pwllheli to Llanbedrog, on foot from there via Rhyd-y-Clafdy back to Penrhos.

Above: the sign for the Polish village from the main road (the A499), the eagle proudly wearing its crown since post-war days. Note three languages - Polish, Welsh and English. 'Cartref Pwyliaid' means 'Polish Home'.

Above: passing through some revetments, visible from the road leading from the A499 into the centre of the Polish village. What's through here? Let's have a look... Below: it's another ammunition store, this one kept nearer the runway. Today, the building stands at the end of a golf driving range, a mecca for people looking for golf balls (I found 19 here in the space of a few minutes). A shame about the graffiti on the walls - not there last time I was here.

Below: "Kiedyś było tu lotnisko, teraz jest pole golfowe!" This is the centre of what was a large circular airfield, with a grass runway, allowing aircraft to take off into the wind. RAF Penrhos was a training base for bombers; several miles away at Porth Neigwl (Hell's Mouth) there was a bombing and gunnery range for aircrews to practice their weapons skills. The plateau that formed the runway is just to the south of the Polish village.

Below: housing from the 1980s forms the northern edge of the Polish village; most of the elderly residents today are housed in modern accommodation rather than in pre-war barracks, now kept for holiday visitors like us...

...and (below), for cub scouts (zuchy i zuszki) who still come here every summer, children today of second and third generation Poles living in North-West England as well as children of recent Polish migrants. Moni and Eddie came here as cub scouts for many years, Eddie returned to a tent in a nearby field as a fully-fledged scout last summer.

Below: rabbits from the fields between the Polish village and Rhyd-y-Clafdy across the hill have been breeding prodigiously since livestock has stopped grazing up there. The rabbits have made their way down to Penrhos and, not finding any natural predators here, have began to multiply in large numbers. They add to the charm of the place, sitting around on the lawns, and scampering off when humans approach too close. 

Below: many thanks to Dyspozytor for e-mailing me this link to a fascinating home movie made here at Penrhos some 50 years ago (it cannot be older because of the 1962 Ford Cortina that appears). Originally uploaded by Andy Bereza.

The biggest difference between 1962 and today is the trees have grown high, making many of the familiar vistas look quite strange. Otherwise, the barracks have been painted white - half a century ago they were still bare wood. The residents are of the same age as today's ones but a different generation - the old folks in this movie would have been veterans of two world wars and may well have also fought the Bolsheviks in 1920. Many are buried at Pwllheli cemetery (photo in this post from 2007). A wonderful slice of Polish history in the UK.

Some interesting photos of surviving military installations around Penrhos here, while on this WW2 forum, details of German air raids on RAF Penrhos here.

Nothing posted on 23 July in previous years.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Beach day, Llyn Peninsula

The weather was clement, the sun sparkling on the restless sea, though thin cloud stretching from the south-west to the north-east covered much of the Llyn today. Still, time to meet up with my brother and his family and head off to the beach.

Above: view of Cardigan Bay from garden of the house my brother's renting. Across the bay, the Cambrian Coast and somewhere out there, Aberystwyth. In the morning, we visited Porth Neigwl (or Hell's Mouth in English - notorious for shipwrecks). The wind was blowing up from the east, many surfers turned up to catch a wave (though very few could do this standing up). Sadly, it was somewhere on this beach that I lost my beloved Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses.

In the afternoon, we visited Porth Ceriad (below), a fine sandy beach to the south of Abersoch, one which is surprisingly little-known and quiet compared to Porth Neigwl (which saw vast amounts of traffic this morning - the car park spilled out onto the winding roads behind it).

At the western end of Porth Ceriad beach you will find steep cliffs running down from around 80m steeply into the sea. A waterfall cascades over the layers of sedimentary rock that tilt dramatically towards the water's edge.

The tide was coming in, but still there was plenty of time to go exploring with Eddie and his Cousin Hoavis. We made our way over the wet sands around the headland to see the impressive rock formations beyond.

There are some caves worth looking into...

And out of...

In the meanwhile, the weather changed; by the time Eddie and I returned to go to Penrhos for our evening stroll, it had started to drizzle. Let's hope the sunshine returns tomorrow.

This time last year:
Down with cars in city centres!

This time two years ago:
8am and 26C already

Double milestone

Today, 22 July 2012, marks the 15th anniversary of my permanent move to Poland. On this day in 1997, I flew into Warsaw Okęcie airport, made my way to ul. Gajdy in Pyry, where we were renting a house. I moved into it entirely empty - nothing here but a mattress, the suitcase with which I arrived, and about three million mosquitos, all intent on draining me of my blood. By the time the rest of the family caught up with me on 20 August, there were well over 200 squashed mozzies splattered on the walls and ceilings of my bedroom, the repainting of which cost 200 zlotys. I recall the smell of the freshly varnished floors and, cycling to work, the smell of węgierki - small plums, and mirabelki - small apricots on the roadside trees.

I'd worked in Poland on short-term consulting assignments before, but being here permanently still felt like an extended holiday, full of novelty and charm. As work became more stressful, this charm faded (the usual stages of expat emotions) but at the end of the day, I'm much better off in Poland than I would have been had I stayed in the UK, happier, and with a sense of satisfaction at having seen a country pulling itself up from the shambles of communism towards becoming a prosperous democracy.

This also happens to be my 1,500th blog post, another reason to be cheerful!

More from Penrhos to follow.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Back at Penrhos

Although Eddie was here last summer, this is my first return to Penrhos since 2007, indeed this is my now my 15th visit to this charmed place ('charmed' as long as the weather holds). A former RAF base, this has been a Polish resettlement camp after WW2, then it became an old folks' home. There are many barracks surviving from the war (indeed Eddie and I are staying in one, No. 42B).

Over the hills and far away - the familiar stroll across to Rhyd-y-clafdy yields lovely views of an evening. Below: looking north-west, hilly landscape of the Llyn Peninsula. Hay baled in huge plastic bags rather spoils the aesthetics of the scene (but no doubt is more convenient for the farmer).

Below: looking east from the same spot - on the horizon, Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa in Welsh), the highest mountain in Wales. Click to enlarge - you will be able to see the top station of the mountain railway just below the peak.

Back to Penrhos after a filling supper at the Ty Hwnt i'r Afon in Rhyd-y-Clafdy. Eddie and I visit the old munitions store, set back from the main base. It is surprising that this structure has not been demolished or converted into something useful.

As long as the weather holds, we'll have a great time in Penrhos.

Off to Wales

Eddie and I are setting off from my parents' house in West Ealing, headed for Penrhos on the Llyn Peninsula. It's our first visit there for five years (click here to see posts from our last holiday here in 2007).

The weather will remain iffy, so we're not expecting glorious sunshine; we'll be happy if it doesn't rain too much. We drive up in a hired Hyundai i10, a car smaller than the Yaris, it should be more economical on the fuel. In Wales we'll be meeting up with my brother and his family.

I don't know what internet access will look like (last time I had to pop into the public library in Pwllheli to get on line), so no guarantee of fresh posts. Back in London on Saturday 28 August.

UPDATE: Saturday evening, we've reached Penrhos, the BT Fon wifi coverage is better than in West Ealing, the sun is shining. The Hyundai i10 has proved a feisty little mover, nippier than the Yaris - and thrifty too - the quarter tank that came with it in driving off from EasyRent lasted all the way from Luton Airport via West Ealing to Telford on the M54 - about 175 miles.

This time two years ago:
Farewell to Dobra

Friday, 20 July 2012

Royal Parks in the rain

It's Thursday morning in London and the weather continues wet and dull. Eddie and I zoom into town from Ealing on the train to Paddington (a mere 10 minutes), then stroll through elegant streets and mews to reach Kensington Gardens. We intend to walk through four of London's Royal Parks - Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park,  Green Park and St James's Park, passing Buckingham Palace to emerge at Trafalgar Square. Thence up to Piccadilly Circus, up Regent's Street and finally to Oxford Circus, and back to Ealing by tube.

Below: Eddie's umbrella comes in handy more than once as frequent heavy showers rain down on us along our way. Here we are in Hyde Park, the largest of the four Royal Parks on our route, at 142 hectares, almost twice the size of Warsaw's Łazienki Park (which I must say is more splendid in its topography and architecture).
We find that much of the park is closed off for the Olympics, which open next weekend. Eddie and I are forced to take numerous detours from our intended route. We make our way round the southern perimeter of the Serpentine, the snake-shaped pond that divides Hyde Park in two. The picture below, taken from a vantage point above the Serpentine, gives no clue as to the fact that we are standing in the middle of a huge city. Hyde Park's size and layout gives it rural charm.

Below: a royal swan, at its feet a cygnet. There's an enormous amount of bird life in Hyde Park - missing, though, are the peacocks that grace Łazienki Park. Clouds presage another impending shower. In the distance you can see the spectator facilities for the swimming parts of the women's and men's triathlon events that will take place here on 4 and 7 August respectively.

On we go, across Hyde Park Corner (not to be confused, as many do, with Speakers' Corner, which is to the north-east of the park). Across Duke of Wellington Place and we're in Green Park, to see the new RAF Bomber Command Memorial unveiled by the Queen three weeks ago. A stirring monument, one which draws many visitors.

We then passed Buckingham Palace, surrounded by tourists from around the world. The Mall, connecting the  palace to Trafalgar Square, has been fenced off (the underwater ping-pong or something takes place on Horse Guards Parade), so we're forced to go to Parliament Square and up Whitehall to get to where we want to go. Everywhere there are soldiers, replacing the security guards that G4S failed to deliver. The Olympics may be a huge tourist draw, but they are also a major inconvenience to tourists who are here to see the city and not the sporting event.

London is a magnificent city to visit, though I'd not move back to live nor work here, for it is too large, too sprawling, its centre too far from open countryside, its climate too damp. But for Eddie - and I suspect for young people the world over, it exerts a fascinating pull.

This time last year:
Storm clouds over Goclaw, Dolinka under water

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

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

This time four years ago:
Wheat and development

This time five years ago:
A previous visit to London

Thursday, 19 July 2012

First flight from Modlin

After seeing the airport on its open day, time to return to use it in earnest. Nowhere near as convenient as Okecie; it's 55km from our house. After the horror stories in the media about Modlin's opening day (especially about the 12 people not let on the Luton flight because of the slowness of security), we arrived 20 minutes before check-in opened. Others had the same idea - there were over 50 people in the queue for the flight to Luton in front of us. Check-in opened five minutes late, and the first people (a family of three) took a full 20 minutes to proceed to security. At this pace, there would be a return of what happened on Monday... The authorities took action. Suddenly, another three check-in desks were opened, and half an hour later we were air-side. At present, there is nothing air-side. It reminds me of Terminal Etiuda - the worst cattle-shed in the history of air travel, especially when your flight is delayed by seven hours and you are with two small children and its just before Christmas. No restaurants, no cafés, no newsagents, no bars, no duty-free shops - just a few over-priced vending machines. And worst of all - not enough seats at the gate for all the passengers due to board the flight.

Despite everything, Eddie and I boarded the flight on time (above), which departed on time, and landed at 'London' Luton on time. We got through passport control briskly, thanks to our use of the special lane for UK citizens with biometric passports. As it transpired, the machine didn't work, either for Eddie or for me or for the other bloke using the biometric passport lane, but it was so much faster than the other queues.

Time then to find our hire car. WizzAir passes its customers onto a website called CarTrawler, which gets good deals on car rental. I get a Hyundai i10 for ten days for £197 from EasyRent. (And a further £130 for zero-excess insurance cover - car hire companies claw back the low hire charges with extortionate fees for tiny scratches they insist were not on the car before you drove off in it.)  A bus takes us to a distant village where there's an airport car park and EasyRent's HQ. It's not just raining - the deluge is so intense that I can't hear what the woman at EasyRent is saying to me. "It's been like this since Easter," she explains, apologetically. A guy rushes us to the car under a large umbrella; while he's explaining how all the controls work, the driver's seat is sodden. There's no chance of inspecting the car for scratches or minor dings in this weather. We drive off towards London through a biblical downpour, the poor wipers barely able to keep up with the volumes of rain being deposited on the windscreen.

Eddie observes that England is visually richer than Poland, both the greenness of the landscape and the wealth of the houses, many of which are over a hundred years old.

We pass lots of bedraggled schoolchildren labouring home in the rain and realise that while Eddie's been on holiday these last four weeks, it's been term time in British schools, which continue to function until the end of this week. Shouldn't Polish schools have longer teaching terms? I blame Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, PiS premier whose only legacy was extending Polish school summer holidays from nine weeks to ten (and yes, he was a school teacher before becoming a politician). At a stroke, he cut the amount of tuition a Polish child receives by 2%.

And so to London, traffic so bad that I have cramp in my right shin from operating the clutch pedal. Finally we arrive at my parents' house; it's half past five UK time (half past six in Warsaw), seven and half hours after leaving home.