January always seems to be a good time to go away if you ask me and this year I found some cheap Ryanair flights at only £50 return to Wroclaw, the fourth largest city in Poland and as we had previously been to Krakow and enjoyed it there the decision was quickly made to visit the historic capital of Lower Silesia.
Before leaving my friend Dai Woosnam provided me with some lessons on pronunciation because although Wroclaw looks easy enough on paper it can prove quite tricky to get absolutely right and is correctly pronounced as ‘Wrotswaf’ with the added complication of a rolling ‘r’. In attempting to say this difficult word it is necessary to sound like a bronchitis sufferer with a throat full of phlegm.
I suggest that the easiest way to achieve it would be to fill your mouth with pebbles to suppress any possible movement of the tongue and force the sound into the back of the mouth; either that or go into the garden shed and find a live moth, swallow it and then try and cough it up and you will achieve roughly the same combination of sounds that is required to get the correct pronunciation!
It is all very well for Dai of course, he is from Wales and the Welsh are used to dealing with unpronounceable place names, places like Llanystumdwy or the most absurd place name of all – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch* because even the Germans don’t have place names as long as that and the longest that I can find is Villingen-Schwenningen but that cheats and includes a hyphen and is really two places next door to each other.
This had been the first time that we had flown with Ryanair since it announced its package of customer service improvements and although I was not expecting a lot of difference I was soon to be surprised and top marks to Michael O’Leary for being true to his word.
The website is much improved and easier to navigate and once at the airport there is now common sense in respect of women’s handbags, which no longer have to be crammed inside the one piece of hand luggage and passengers can also take on a bag of duty free purchases. The staff were helpful and smiled instead of snarled as we got on and off the plane and the relentless address system assault with a succession of hard sell announcements had been significantly reduced. On the down side there is still that annoying fanfare upon landing to announce ‘another on time flight from Ryanair’.
As we dropped through the light cloud I could see Poland rapidly coming into view. This part of the country is flat and prairie like with a chequer board pattern of agricultural farms and fields occupying the valley of the River Oder and a long way from the mountains of the south or the forests of the east and in its state of winter hibernation it looked rather unremarkable and it made me wonder why so many lives had been lost over the years fighting over it.
Dai had visited Wroclaw a couple of years previously and had some sightseeing, culinary and accommodation tips for me including a strong recommendation to stay at the £12 a night Stranger (or was it Strangeways) Hostel close to the railway station but although I was grateful for the what to see and where to go tips and even for the dining suggestions I had to tell him that the chances of Kim agreeing to stay in a hostel in a dormitory with a bathroom shared with strangers was some considerable way below zero on the probability scale of acceptable accommodation.
As it happened we got a very good £50 a night discounted deal at the five star Sofitel just off the main square so after landing and passing through customs at Wroclaw Copernicus Airport we considered our options for getting there.
Outside the terminal building there was a bus stop and the 406 pulled up and this looked like perfect timing but there turned out to be a complicated automatic ticket purchasing system and by the time I had worked it out the bus driver had become impatient and closed the doors and revved the engine to indicate his imminent departure. I thought briefly about standing in the road to prevent him pulling away but he had the look of a psychopath so I thought better of it and he drove away with a sneering grin leaving the two of us and quite a line of irritable people in the queue behind us to wait for the next one due in twenty minutes or so.
I felt rather guilty about all of the others that had missed the transport so we walked away towards the taxi rank and although, as I have explained before, I have an aversion to using cabs there was an advertised price of fifty zloty (about £10) and this just seemed too reasonable a price to stand by my principles at this particular time so we loaded our bags and climbed in the back seat and while Kim looked out of the window I kept my attention firmly fixed on the meter!
The down side of expensive hotels is that they have a way of making me feel uncomfortable at check-in as though the staff know that I would probably be more at home in the hostel and the Sofitel had that thing that I hate most – the uniformed commissionaire waiting to give unnecessary assistance with the luggage.
He insisted on taking our bags and then hovered around through the check-in formalities and then escorted us to our room when we were perfectly capable of finding it for ourselves. After he had introduced us to the facilities with the speed of a retreating glacier as though this might make it seem more important he stood around waiting for a tip and this you see is my problem – I have no idea how much to give them. A few bits of loose change looks mean but I am not going to give a large note for just a few minutes work. Luckily the Polish notes come in small denominations so I handed over the smallest that I had worth about £2.
Although Dai would not have agreed, on account of its corporate and ubiquitous style, it was a nice room with a bathroom full of complimentary soaps and shampoos so as we carried out an inventory we congratulated ourselves on a good choice and then found our scarves and gloves and went outside to the streets of the city.
* Although often claimed to be the longest place name in the World, there is in fact a Maori place name in New Zealand that is even longer – Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu but personally I discount that because it isn’t the name of a town or a village but rather a hill.