Category Archives: Krakow

Entrance Tickets, Wroclaw – Three Church Towers

In a survey in 2010 75% of the population of Poland said that they were practising Catholics.  Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only registered 74%.  Malta had the largest positive response at 95%. The least religious countries were all in the north where 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t important.

Rather odd that bearing in mind that they believe in Elves and Fairies and Goblins.

Interestingly this survey didn’t seem to include the Vatican State where there is a population of only about five hundred official citizens and three-quarters of these are clergy so I imagine the response would surely have been no less than 100%.

I wasn’t surprised by this high response in Poland because there are twenty churches on the map of the old town area of Wroclaw and three of them have towers to climb and I do like climbing towers and we set about tackling them in a sort of church tower triathlon!

We started first with the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Ostrow Tumski, on the Cathedral Island which at ninety-seven metres Island is the tallest of the three.

The most common Christian Church dedication is to Saint Mary but dedications to St John the Baptist are also quite common.    There are almost six hundred in England alone and I used to go to this one every Sunday in the village of Hillmorton, near Rugby in Warwickshire where I grew up…

Yes, I did go there every week – honestly, that’s me third from the right, about 1970…

During the Siege of Breslau in the last days of World War Two the Wroclaw Cathedral was very badly damaged with about three-quarters of the building being destroyed by heavy bombing by the Red Army  in what amounted to the Russian contribution to the end of war demolition of Poland.

The initial reconstruction of the church lasted until 1951 and in the following years, additional aspects were rebuilt and renovated. The original, conical shape of the towers was restored only as recently as 1991.

Although it is the highest of the three church towers it is also the easiest to ascend (I say this with hindsight of course) because after only a few steps there is a small museum of African Art (a bit weird) and a lift to the top.

It is one of those curious lifts that you can still find in Europe with an open space next to a blank wall which flashes by as you ascend to the top and would cause serious injury if you were to lean against the moving brickwork.  Luckily there was an attendant who stood perilously near (in my opinion) to the wall and stopped visitors from getting too close!

After a couple of circuits of the top the chill wind sent us straight back down again and before we left we walked around the interior of the Cathedral and enjoyed the decoration and the stained glass windows.

Next stop was the Mary Magdalene (a follower of Jesus, but not a Disciple, because only men could be Disciples) church near the Market Square which is quite ordinary except for the tower and the  Penitent Bridge (Mostek Pokutnic) which is a footbridge between the two towers of at the height of forty-five metres.

According to the legend it is possible to see the ghosts of young women, who, instead of taking care of their homes and children, preferred to go out on the town and party with men.

As a penitence, they had to cross the bridge between the towers.

Legend also says that if an unmarried couple walk the length of the bridge while holding hands, their love for one another will never fade and they will marry, which for me is a lot better than a nasty love lock on a bridge!

This was the shortest of the three and an easy walk to the top up modern concrete zig-zag steps and we walked the bridge taking care not to hold hands and after looking out over the market Square we returned to ground level and made our way the short distance to nearby St Elizabeth’s Church.

Saint Elizabeth was the mother of John the Baptist. The church dates back to the fourteenth century. The main tower was originally one hundred and thirty-six meters tall and from 1525 until 1946 was the chief Lutheran Church of Breslau and Silesia. In 1946 it was expropriated and given to the Military Chaplaincy of the Polish Roman Catholic Church which I suppose accounts for its rather plain and austere interior compared to the Cathedral of St John the Baptist.

The reconstructed main tower is now ninety two meters tall and with three hundred and four steps up and down a stone spiral staircase is the most difficult of the three to reach the top.  But the climb is well worth the effort because the reward is the best view of all from all three with a panorama of the surrounding countryside and a bird’s eye view of the Market Square.  Well worth the 5 zloty fee!

After three towers we agreed that we had earned a beer so we retired immediately to the Drink Bar and prepared ourselves for our final night in Wroclaw and an early morning flight home the next day.

We had enjoyed out time here. Wroclaw doesn’t have the historical swagger or confidence of Krakow or the raw edge and the buzz of Warsaw but it has a quirky charm of the more manageable city.  When it comes to Poland whilst I might consider returning to Krakow and Wroclaw, once in Warsaw I think is probably enough.

More Towers…

Trogir (Croatia) Tower of Terror

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Church Tower, Riga

Blarney Castle, Ireland

Torre Dos Clérigios, Porto

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European Capital of Culture 2000 – Prague

Prague Czech Republic

On arrival in Prague we joined others in a mini-bus taxi that took us efficiently to the city and our hotel for a very reasonable rate.  A good taxi ride, most unexpected, what an excellent start!

The hotel was first class and we had an interesting room in a converted attic that was clean and spacious but with a lot of what I thought were unnecessary instructions on how guests shouldn’t move the furniture around, I mean, unless they were practising Feng Shui and were particularly picky about the bed facing a special direction or something why would anybody want to?

Prague Czech Republic

The receptionist was very helpful but gave far more information about the city than anyone could possibly cope with in one go and forgetting most of it almost immediately as it went in one ear and straight out of the other left the hotel to find somewhere for an evening meal.

Because it was late we decided not to go too far and found a charming little restaurant in an adjacent street and sat outside on an uneven pavement at a dangerously unstable table and ordered a first meal in Prague.

After a generous beef Stroganoff (always one of my favourites) we walked around for a while had another drink and then went back to the hotel.  We found the way back without a problem, but once inside the labyrinth of stairs got completely lost.  We had missed the correct route in the confusing warren of corridors and were in completely the wrong part of the hotel.  We sorted it out after a while, went to bed and slept well.

In the morning there was a good breakfast with the usual cold buffet full of continental offerings but with some unusual hot items in addition.  There were sausages but unfortunately they were frankfurters and I am afraid that I just do not like frankfurters because of that horrible rubbery chewy consistency.  Not much chance of a superior Lincolnshire sausage here because it is close to Germany of course and clearly under the Teutonic influence when it comes to bangers.

Prague Castle and Cathedral

The weather was overcast but seemed to be ever so slowly improving so we left the umbrellas behind and went out into the city.  Our first planned destination was the City’s old town, which was reached by crossing the Charles Bridge and I know that it was overcast and there was no sun to help cheer things up but the famous statues were dull and grimy and seemed to me to be desperately in need of a good scrub.  There must be enough tourist revenues pouring in to fund the process and I am sure that the city authorities are thinking about it but they really need to get on with the job.

I have an idea to help them.  One statue, St John Nepomuk, is supposed to bring luck to those who touch it and it is polished bright where tourists rub their hands on it.  If the City spread the word that touching any statue would bring similar good fortune then they would all be gleaming clean in no time at all.

St John Nepomuk

Actually I found this statue a bit surprising because poor old John Nepomuk didn’t seem to have a great deal of luck himself in his lifetime as he was a Jesuit priest who was tortured and killed by King Wenceslas in 1393 and his body was thrown into the river.  Because of his aquatic final resting place he is regarded as a protector from floods but he must have been off duty in August 2003 when the city endured its worst floods for two hundred years and forty thousand people were evacuated and the cost of repairing the damage ran into billions.

The streets were busy and we walked until reaching the old town, which opened up into a spacious and welcoming central square and it was free of traffic so we were able to wander aimlessly around looking ever upwards and admiring the buildings that surrounded it.

In the centre is the Jan Hus monument, a religious reformer who was burnt at the stake for his beliefs.  I was beginning to detect a gruesome pattern here.  In the Middle Ages there always came a time where persisting with a point of view became dangerous to life and limb and poor old Jan obviously did not get his timing right, a bit like Thomas More and his out of touch views on King Henry’s wedding plans.

It was about half past ten so we sat at a pavement café and had a Staropramen, which is an agreeable Czech beer and surveyed the sky and speculated about whether the sun would come out.  Although it was early I don’t think anyone in Prague would have found this early drinking unusual because according to the Economist, in a poll in 2006, the people of the Czech republic are the biggest alcohol consuming nation in the World.

The weather didn’t look very promising but we strained my eyes searching for spreading patches of blue.  They appeared sometimes but always to be cruelly snatched away just when things seemed to be improving.  We optimistically assured ourselves that it would definitely be out by the afternoon.

Prague Czech Republic

European Capital of Culture 2000 – Krakow

On the second day of our visit to Krakow there were two groups with very different plans.  Micky, Sue and Christine were going to visit Auschwitz but as we had been before Kim and I chose Mike’s Crazy Communist Tour instead.

We had seen this on a Michael Palin travel programme and it looked like fun so we were keen to give it a try.

To be honest, we were all a bit surprised that Christine wanted to go to Auschwitz because when we had visited Seville the previous year she refused to visit a bull ring because animals had been killed there but she didn’t seem to mind visiting a Nazi concentration camp where over a million and a half people were abused, tortured and murdered.

Auschwitz

After an early breakfast the Auschwitz group set off in their taxi and with an hour to spare before our trip we walked around the streets of Kazimierz, through buildings that were little more than empty shells with rapidly deteriorating structures, through the grounds of a grand church and into the main square that used to be even more important than the market square in Krakow itself.

Without a street map we inevitably became confused and ever so slightly lost and only made it back just in time for our scheduled nine-thirty pick up.

The feature of the tour is that the transport is in an original ‘communist’ Trabant car with the promise of a ‘crazy’ driver and sure enough outside our hotel was the vehicle and the driver who presented himself as Eric and who immediately introduced us to the features of the car.

The Trabant (which in medieval German was a foot soldier or personal guard) was an automobile that was produced in former East Germany and was the most common vehicle in that country but was also exported to neighbours inside the communist bloc and sometimes even to the west.

It was called the People’s Car and was so popular and production was so inefficient, that it could take up to fifteen years to deliver after placing the order.  The main selling point was that it had room for four adults and luggage in a compact, light and durable shell, which western critics mocked and suggested was made of cardboard but was in fact a sort of fibreglass/plastic.

There were four principal variants of the Trabant, ours was the 601 Station Wagon model, hand painted in black with socialist red trim and finishes.  Eric explained that the engine was a small 600cc two-stroke power unit with only two cylinders which gave the vehicle a modest performance with a top speed of seventy miles per hour and zero to sixty taking twenty-one seconds at full throttle ( for a rather pointless comparison a modern formula one car will achieve 0 to 60 in under two seconds).

There were two main problems with the engine, the smoky exhaust and the pollution because the car was responsible for producing nine times the amount of hydrocarbons and five times the carbon monoxide emissions of the average modern European car.

Eric explained that the car had no fuel gauge so even though there was a small reserve tank getting to a destination could be a bit of a guessing game and require a large stroke of luck.  Because there was no fuel pump in the car the petrol tank was placed high up in the engine compartment so that fuel could be fed directly to the carburetor by way of gravity.  As the engine does not have an oil injection system two-stroke oil has to be added to the fuel tank every time it is filled up, which I imagine is a bit of a chore.

This all sounded rather dangerous to me because you have to open the bonnet to refuel and after a run to the petrol station it would be almost certain that the engine will be hot so I imagine it takes a great deal of concentration and Indiana Jones type nerves of steel to visit the filling station!

Nowa Huta Krakow Poland

Keeping a car like this roadworthy probably requires divine intervention but once on board Eric carefully negotiated his way out of Kazimierz and towards the main road that would take us to our destination, the communist model new town of Nowa Huta, to the east of Krakow.

Inside, the car was basic with rudimentary controls and dashboard.  The four speed gear box was operated by a column mounted gear change which looked quite tricky to me but Eric seemed to know his way around the gears well enough and he guided us effortlessly through the early morning traffic.  One of the problems he pointed out was that other drivers didn’t often show a lot of respect to the little Trabant and this sometimes made progress slow and difficult.

I was moderately relaxed even though I knew that if the inefficient drum brakes ever failed and there was an accident that my legs were effectively the crumple zone and just a few centimetres in front of my face was the fragile little petrol tank ready to burst into flames and there was a couple of occasions when I found myself operating an imaginary foot brake and Kim admitted later that even though she was in the back seat that she was doing the same.

It took about twenty minutes to drive to our destination and in between dodging the gaping potholes and keeping an eye out for discourteous fellow road users, in preparation for the tour and over the clatter of the engine and the creaking of the chassis, Eric kept up an informative narrative about the history of communism in Poland.

It was great fun especially as we rattled over tramlines and Eric fought with the steering controls to negotiate some tight bends but eventually we arrived at our destination, left the car and began our visit to Nowa Huta.

http://www.crazyguides.com/

Weekly Photo Challenge: Depth – Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

“Wherever he saw a hole he always wanted to know the depth of it. To him this was important.”                                                                                                                           Jules Verne –  ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’

Down in the mine we walked for three and a half kilometres through a succession of chambers, carved chapels and exhibits that explained the history and the operation.   The route took us to a depth of three hundred and twenty-seven metres and down a precise total of eight hundred steps.  Almost at the bottom was the star of the show where an entire cathedral complete with a statue of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, had been craved into one of the largest caverns.

Read the full story…

Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

Poland (Wroclaw), The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Wroclaw Arial View

As we entered the market square next to the one hundred and thirty metre high St. Elizabeth’s Church it was immediately worth remembering that what we were seeing was an almost perfect reconstruction because after the siege of 1945 this was almost totally destroyed and almost completely annihilated by the Soviet fury of 1945.  By the time the white flag was raised there was only eighteen- million cubic metres of rubble covering what had once been a jewel on the River Oder.

But reconstruction was thankfully swift and in less than twenty years since sustaining a degree of apocalyptic devastation almost unimaginable in its brutality the city had largely rebuilt itself.

Wroclaw’s market square and much of the urban grid around it was laid out by medieval town planners in 1241.  It is rather like Krakow and after that neighbouring city claims to be the second largest medieval square in Europe, although you really have to be careful with these sorts of claims because there is always somewhere else ready to challenge them.  This is however very impressive and at the centre is the elaborately decorated Town Hall, a masterpiece of medieval vision and architecture which originally took two hundred and fifty years to build in the Middle Ages, a month or two to demolish in 1945 and twenty years or so to restore after the war.

The middle of the square and the Town Hall building is the centrepiece of the square but for me the best of the buildings are on all sides where pastel coloured medieval tenement houses compete with each other for grandness and attention in architectural styles ranging from Gothic, through Baroque to Art Nouveau and like strutting peacocks competing for attention they showed themselves off magnificently in the mid afternoon sunshine.  Photographs on postcards show that during the Summer the square is full of tables and parasols of the restaurants and cafés but today it was quite empty and it was possible to appreciate the buildings without the pavement decoration.

It isn’t all colourful and picture book perfect however because in one prominent corner is a drab grey ten-story office block building of a Polish bank which looks frightfully out of place.  It was completed in 1931 and was the beginning of a mad project to modernise the square, to demolish the elegant town houses and build a modern city with twenty-story concrete buildings.  Thankfully after some deliberation the city authorities rejected the plan but sadly, in my opinion, the destruction of the city in the siege of 1945 didn’t manage to destroy it and I am rather surprised that as part of the reconstruction they didn’t demolish it anyway and replace it with something more appropriate.

Wroclaw Poland Market Square

Next to the main square is a second called Salt Square because in the past this is where there was significant trade in salt which had been transported here from the salt mines at Wieliczka near Krakow which we had visited a year or so previously.

We made a second circuit of the square and briefly visited the Town Hall and then moved away into the streets that leaked away in all directions and here the quality and attractiveness changed quickly creating an immediate contrast between the resplendent Market Square with the brutal ugliness and drab functionality of concrete and steel as we passed through the shopping streets and into residential areas where crumbling cement and corroded steel presented an alternative image of Wroclaw.  If the main square was the good then here was the bad and the ugly!

Even if you were to strip away the façades of the old town reconstruction to reveal the utilitarian concrete of the communist regime that lies behind them at least the area of the Old Town was reconstructed with respect to its historical significance but areas outside the city’s medieval centre essentially presented post-war architects with a blank slate.  The officially accepted style of the time was Socialist Realism – a severe artistic style following strict guidelines from the Soviet master plan, based on a uniform granite grey and one which architects were not allowed to deviate.   One of the best places to see this form of architecture is the Communist model city of Nowa Huta near Krakow.

Wroclaw Dwarfs Postcard

There is a lot of concrete in Wroclaw as in other Polish cities because during the reconstruction there was a desperate shortage of bricks.  After 1945 the Polish government gave total precedence to the rebuilding of Warsaw and there the Old Town of the capital was carefully rebuilt using reconstruction materials recovered from the western cities under an official programme called ‘bricks for Warsaw’ and  it was achieved at considerable expense to other Polish cities, especially those in the ‘recovered territories’ of the west that were way down the reconstruction priority list.

Wroclaw’s contribution to this project was indeed its bricks and at it is estimated that at one stage they were being sent to Warsaw at a rate of one million every day which meant the loss of original material to rebuild the city.  These are only my very rough calculations but if an average brick is 2.5kgs that is 2,500 tonnes per day transported in 20 tonne capacity railway trucks at 15 trucks per train that would have been about ten fully loaded trains every day transporting bricks out of Wroclaw.  Szczecin, another previous German city in the north-west, fared even worse and was actually required to demolish its undamaged buildings to provide the bricks for Warsaw.

The afternoon was starting to slip away now and by four o’clock the sun had disappeared below the building line, there were some ominous heavy clouds moving in and it was beginning to get cold so now was just about the right time to find a warm bar and on the way back to the hotel we came across the perfect place called simply the ‘Drink Bar’ (because you know where you stand in a place with a name like that) which was situated inside either the Hansel or the Gretel house but I am not sure exactly which one, where Kim had coffee and wine and I introduced myself to the Polish beer Zywiec.

Later we used the spa facilities at the hotel and then after rejecting its restaurant on account of its beyond our budget prices returned to the Market Square to find an alternative.  It was bitterly cold now and the chilled fingers of a strong wind reached inside our coats like a pick-pocket and loosened our scarves and pinched our cheeks as we walked around the perimeter for a third time and were surprised that despite the weather the place was still full of local people out walking with their families and friends.

I generally leave restaurant selection to Kim because she is so much better at it than me and has an uncanny knack of picking a good place to eat just from a casual glance at the menu and the table arrangements and tonight she selected a rustic Georgian restaurant with a short but modestly priced menu.  It turned out to be very satisfactory and we had a meal, wine and beer all for just over one hundred zloty or a very reasonable £20.  So reasonable in fact that I really didn’t mind leaving an above average tip!

Drink Bar Wroclaw poland

Poland (Wroclaw), Statistics and Shifting Borders

Wroclaw Poland Market Square

Even within a short time of arriving I was beginning to form an impression that Wroclaw is a friendly, honest city, proud but not boastful, ambitious but unpretentious and as we walked I thought about the statistics that I generally use to get the measure of a country or a place.

Poland is placed 39th in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top fifty of most highly developed countries.  The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.  It is rated 19th out of thirty in the European Happiness Index which may not sound very impressive but is two places above the United Kingdom so when people complain about Polish immigration I say perhaps it is a good thing and more Polish people might cheer us all up!  Iceland, by-the-way remains way out in front.

Poland has fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites which puts in 19th place in the World and tenth overall in Europe which is no mean achievement.  One of the nineteen is the Centennial Hall in Wroclaw which was built to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig and is included as an early landmark example of the use of reinforced concrete but we didn’t really have any plans to go visiting there as it is a little way out of the city. 

Perhaps not surprisingly the country was rather late joining the Blue Flag Beach initiative but is now catching up and has by 2013 achieved the status at twenty-eight beaches and Marinas on the Baltic Sea.

But some things are not going so well, in football, Poland has finished third twice at the Football World Cup but has been spectacularly unsuccessful in the European Nations cup where it has qualified twice but on neither occasion progressed beyond the group stages. It is an interesting coincidence that in England we still smart over the failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals because we were unable to overcome Poland in a final group match and in particular the goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski (who Brian Clough faously wrote of as ‘a clown’) who just happens to have been a citizen of Wroclaw and who began his playing career at the football club Śląsk Wrocław.

If you think that the football statistics are disappointing however, consider this, Poland has made the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest only nine times in sixteen attempts although it did manage to come second in 1994 despite almost being disqualified for rehearsing in English!

But it is the history of the country that fascinates me most because Poland has had a most dramatic and unfortunate last one thousand years and the reason for this is largely down to its geographical position on one of the dangerously volatile European political fault lines with powerful neighbours to both east and west using it a convenient buffer state and taking it in turns to use it as a punch bag.

For the entire period that there has been a place called Poland occupying a part of central Europe its borders have expanded and contracted like a medical ventilator as other more powerful states have invaded it, subjugated it and periodically annexed those parts that they found that they had a particular liking for.  The last great redrawing of the boundaries came in 1945 which gave us the geographical shape of Poland that we recognise today and I mention this here because this review of the borders had a significant impact on Wroclaw.

Prior to 1945 Wroclaw was called Breslau and was part of greater Germany and one of the important Imperial cities of old Prussia, by all accounts an elegant city of spires and canals.  The Germans were fond of Breslau and it survived most of the war pretty much intact but in 1945 as the Red Army advanced Hitler declared it a fortress city and ordered it to be defended to the last man.  The defending Germans loyally obeyed their orders but there was a high price to pay for this military obstinacy and in a few weeks the city was almost completely destroyed to the extent that what we see now is all due to post war reconstruction.

After the city finally fell Soviet revenge for holding up the Red Army advance was swift and brutal, with reprisals against the German population going largely unchecked. Fuelled by alcohol, drunken bands of Soviet soldiers rampaged across the city, dispensing instant justice to those who resisted their looting and rape. Trapped in Dante-style anarchy Breslau had reached its lowest point, the city lost in human catastrophe. It was into this hellish vision that Polish settlers from the East arrived, desperate to find a new home.

With Germany defeated the three main allied leaders set about agreeing borders for new Poland and had to accommodate the desire of the USSR to push their western border as far into central Europe as possible to re-establish a series of buffer states that would protect Russia from further western aggression and another invasion – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine all served this purpose.  So while Poland shrunk in the east it was compensated for this loss with lands in the west – principally the old Prussian/German states of Pomerania and Silesia and a new border was agreed on the Oder-Neisse line with what was to become temporarily East Germany.

Now the trouble really began because the Russians didn’t want the disaffected and troublesome Poles living in their annexed territories so they were forcibly expelled and sent west and replaced with Russian citizens in a process called Russification.  The Poles not unsurprisingly didn’t want the Germans living in new Poland so in turn forcibly expelled the Germans of old Breslau and sent them west as well  to make room for the Poles who had been displaced in the east.

The Poles arriving from the east didn’t much care for the Germanic appearance and infrastructure of the place (even though it had been largely demolished) and the end of the war signalled a belligerent campaign to de-Germanise the city.  Newspapers launched competitions to eliminate all traces of Wroclaw’s German heritage with monuments and street signs all falling victim to an iconoclastic whirlwind of destruction including an equine statue of Kaiser Wilhelm that once stood in the Market Square whilst other German structures that had survived the Russian siege were introduced to the Polish wrecking-ball.  By the end of 1945 as many as three hundred thousand Germans were still in the city and this was a problem for the Polish authorities. Forced transports began in July, and by January 1948 Wroclaw was officially declared to be free of German habitants. 

After a short walk we passed directly into the square which like so many others in Europe has been expertly and sensitively restored and betrays an eclectic mix of the principles of original medieval town planning and a combination of Germanic and Polish architectural styles that perfectly complement one another. 

Here was an elegant reconstruction based on a late eighteenth century Baroque and Classical style and so we set about walking around the square and its adjacent streets to try and get to know this city a little better in the short time that we had there.

Poland Border Revisions in 1945

Poland (Wroclaw), Travel Advice and Ryanair Improvements

Wroclaw Postcard

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.

Polish Zloty

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.