Category Archives: Poland

Top Ten Dumbest Web Search Questions

Vesuvius Postcard

“do flights landing in Naples fly over Vesuvius?”

Now, this seems to me to be an especially stupid question. I am not an expert on aviation or air traffic control but it seems very unlikely to me that aeroplane carrying over three hundred passengers landing at an international airport in Italy would want to fly over the top of a 1,300 metre high active volcano because it sounds full of potential hazards to me especially as the Naples airport is only ten miles or so from the crater and at this point would have an altitude of barely higher than the top of the mountain.

The page they were directed to was probably my post about my visit to the mountain.

Another dumb historical question next – “how wealthy are the Romanovs?” and dumb because most people know that the entire Romanov family were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1917 during the Russian revolution.

Russian_Royal_Family_1911_720px

There are some claimants to the titles of the Russian Tsars but even if they were confirmed to be true descendants they would be extremely unlikely to be wealthy because the Russian communist regime confiscated all their treasure, money and valuables.

I visited Russia in 2012 and posted about the fate of the Romanovs so I guess the enquirer might have ended up on my post about the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

Some time ago my favourite was can pubic hair grow more with regain?” and rather disappointingly I have nothing to really compete with that ever again.

I think this may have drawn the person with the question to my post about “Health and Efficiency” magazine

Actually that was a good thing about Health and Efficiency because there were never any pubic detail on show because until the mid 1970s this was strictly censored in British publishing.  In retrospect, the most striking thing about the models’ anatomy was that they were completely without pubic hair, or, for that matter, any other details associated with the genital area of the body.

They were as blank as an ancient Greek marble statue in that department, and in pre computer photo editing days, this was achieved by skilful use of an ‘air-brush’ applied directly to the photo before publication.

nude-croquet

Bottoms however were ok it seems…

Being a student of history I am going to begin with a selection of wildly inaccurate historical searches.

The first one is “Why did Shakespeare bring starlings to Australia?”  I think I am obliged to point out here straight away that William Shakespeare died in 1616 and Australia wasn’t settled by Europeans for another couple of hundred years or so after that and although there is much literary speculation concerning possible visits by the Bard to Italy I think it is safe to say that he never went as far as Australia!

Birds of Shakespeare

I imagine that what the question referred to was really about starlings in the USA because here there is a connection.  The introduction of the starling to USA is said to be the responsibility of a man called Eugene Schiefflein who belonged to a group dedicated to introducing into America all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works on the basis that they thought it would be rather nice to hear the sound of Shakespeare’s birds warbling their old world songs on the tree branches of new world America.

Showing a similar lack of historical knowledge is my second search term, “Was El Cid a Muslim?”  Now, El Cid was the great Spanish hero of the Catholic Reconquista which drove the African Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula so I imagine any suggestion that he was a secret Muslim will have poor Charlton Heston spinning in his grave.

Following a visit to Castilla-La Mancha in 2009 I wrote a number of posts about El Cid and I expect the enquirer was sign posted to one of these.

El Cid 1

Next on my historical howlers list is Napoleon Monument in Moscow” What? In his periods of sanity Napoleon did some rather good things but most of the time he was a tyrant and a dictator and a warmonger and in 1812 he invaded Russia and did unspeakable things to the Russian people who were unfortunate enough to be in his way as he marched his army to Moscow.  When he got there the Russian people burnt the city down and so with nowhere to stay for the winter he was obliged to march all the way back again during which his army did more unpleasant things to the Russian people.

I imagine that the chances of there being a memorial to Napoleon Bonaparte in Moscow are about just as likely as there will be a statue of Adolf Hitler.

Napoleon 2

Moving on now from history to science – “see through girls’ clothes” and once again if I had the answer to this one I would surely be a millionaire.  It reminded me of my post about X-Ray Specs which seemed to suggest all sorts of peeking opportunities but in fact never actually worked (or so I am told!)

x-ray-specs

For this  category  of search terms I have saved my favourite until last and this is it – things to do in Tossa de Marr Spain for clairvoyants”. Now, call me a sceptic if you like but if you can see into the future what on earth does a clairvoyant need with a website of advertised events – why don’t they just look in their crystal ball?

I have been to Tossa de Mar and I have to say that palm reader, soothsayer or clairvoyant that it is a very fine place to visit.

Tossa de Mar Costa Brava Postcard

One of my most successful posts is about the day I attended a Buckingham Palace Garden Party and I get lots of odd Google referrals about this one.  This year my favourite just has to be – “do I get expenses to attend royal garden party?”

Let me take a moment here to explain.  Just to be invited to a Buckingham Palace Garden party is a bit special in itself and believe me there is going to be a lot of expense involved – new suit, new outfit, overnight stay in London, taxi fares etc. and most people would gladly deal with this just to be part of the occasion so I have to say that expecting the Queen to pick up the bill sounds rather republican to me and whoever asked this should not have had an invite in the first place.

Cakes at Royal Garden Party

Next up, I really like this one –what did the captain wear on the Titanic?”

I visited Belfast recently and went to see the Titanic Exhibition and Museum.  It was a super place and I recommend anyone to go there and I think what I learned on that visit may just well help here.

Around the exhibition there are lots of pictures of Captain Smith in his White Star Line uniform so I am forced to conclude that except when he went to bed and most likely put on a pair of pyjamas that this was his favourite form of dress.  Another thing that I can be certain of is that Captain Smith didn’t wear a lifebelt because after the Titanic struck the iceberg he went down with his ship and drowned!

Edward Smith

To finish with this is probably my biggest ever favourite…

What was General Franco’s favourite food?

I am sure that this is a question that only his personal chef could realistically be expected to answer with any authority but my suggestions are…

  • Skewered Republicans
  • Roasted Liberals
  • BBQ’d Communists

Some time ago I tried to visit General Franco’s tomb but the Spanish don’t like Franco any more and it was closed at the time on account of the fact that it was being demolished.

When General Franco met Führer Adolf Hitler I can only assume that either they couldn’t agree on the menu or they were both on a diet…

Franco meets Hitler

Regardless of food, this has to be one of the most awkward historical meetings ever – just look at their faces!

Got any odd Google enquiries – please share!

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A Look Back at 2017

Beer Drinking in WroclawSpain 2017aEast Anglia 2017Ireland 2017France 2017Kim in PortugalMellieha Bay Hotel 4

Portugal, The Vampires and The Fado of Coimbra

Coimbra Portugal

“Portugal has a tradition of fado, the idea that one’s fate or destiny cannot be escaped, and it’s the name given to a form of traditional Portuguese singing that’s been given UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage status. You’ll often hear fado in bars, cafes and restaurants – melancholic songs of love, loss, hopefulness and resignation – accompanied by soulful guitars, mandolins and violins.”

The very reasonably priced IBIS hotel was not as grand as the Conde de Ferreira Palace  in Tomar but was in a perfect central location situated on the River Mondego with the historical centre of Coimbra rising up in dramatic style behind it like a sheer mountain face and perfectly placed for a short walk to an attractive and vibrant square busy with restaurants and bars basking in the sunshine.

From there we made our way to the old town and the University district and quickly discovered that Lisbon isn’t the only hilly city in Portugal.  Coimbra is built on the top of a hill, not all of it of course, because it is the third largest city in the country but the bit that we wanted to see was certainly on the top of the mountain.

It was hot again and the climb was a bit of a chore but as well as getting our bearings and seeing some of the sites we needed to find somewhere suitable to eat later and after our successes in Lisbon and Tomar there was a lot to live up to.  We found one or two likely looking places but none really stood out and then we tired of examining menus and made our way to the very top.

Portugal Coimbra University

Kim wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about visiting the inside of the University today so we concentrated instead on the exterior and agreed that we might come back tomorrow (a certainty for me but doubtful for Kim).  There were some wonderful views from the top and we strolled around the ornate courtyards and admired the Palaces and the churches and the two cathedrals and it occurred to me that Coimbra could easily be tagged the Florence of Portugal.

There was a lot of activity at the University because this was first week of new term – ‘Freshers Week’.  I remember ‘Freshers Week’ when I pitched up at Cardiff University in September 1975.  With hormones raging in overdrive I thought this was going to be opportunity to meet new girls but I quickly realised that this is the week when second and third year students turn up in force and get all the girls before a new student gets a look in and it looked very much like it was exactly the same procedure here in Coimbra.

University students in Coimbra wear a black uniform complete with a cape, they are known locally as ‘the cloaks’ and if I hadn’t known it was a University I might have mistaken it for a convention of Vampires.

Coimbra University Freshers Week Vampires

We weren’t going to visit anything today that had an entrance fee so we made our way back to the river and I became interested in a sign outside a small building that was advertising a Fado show, traditional music of Portugal.  I was keen to go along but I couldn’t persuade Kim to join me so I bought a single ticket and would return later alone.

On the way back to the IBIS I spotted a small restaurant that looked traditional and welcoming and had a reasonable menu so I suggested that we try this one.  Kim agreed and I worried then that my bad luck with recommendations might strike again and I would come to regret ever having mentioned it.  As I have said before I prefer to leave restaurant selection decisions to Kim and then no blame can be attributed to me in the case of a bad one.

Fado Coimbra Portugal

Later I returned to the centre for the five o’clock Fado show and after only five minutes or so I realised that Kim had made an absolutely brilliant decision in declining to accompany me.  I didn’t enjoy it at all, it was terrible; if had had the sense to consult Wikipedia before impetuously buying the ticket I am certain that I too would have rejected the idea…

Fado is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia”

… this, let me tell you is music to get seriously depressed to.  There was zero chance that I would buy one of the CDs on sale at the entrance.  If I could have sneaked out then I would have left there and then but I was in the middle of a row quite near the front and it would have been impossible to leave without drawing a lot of attention to myself.  I had no alternative but to stick it out, thankfully it only lasted for an hour and there was the consolation of a complimentary glass of port wine when it finally came to an end.

Now it came to restaurant time and I worried that my poor judgment might continue but it turned out to and it turned out to be excellent, so good in fact that we agreed that we would return there again the following night.  Once we find a place we like we don’t like taking unnecessary risks!

Statue Coimbra Portugal

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

The Struggle Against Communist Oppression in Poland

Solidarity Gary Cooper

In my previous post I wrote about oppression in Poland after World-War-Two and the struggle for freedom and this reminded me of a visit to the capital city of Warsaw the year before.

Walking in the city centre we approached the heavily guarded Presidential Palace and on the pavement outside there was a display commemorating some previous uprising or other and as a backdrop there was a huge canvas poster of Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane in the film High Noon.

I had no idea why until I looked it up later:

In 1989 there were some partially free elections in Poland and this was the official poster of the Solidarity movement and it shows Cooper armed not with a pistol in his right hand but with a folded ballot saying ‘Wybory’ (elections)  while the Solidarity logo is pinned to his vest above the sheriff’s badge. The message at the bottom of the poster reads: “W samo południe: 4 czerwca 1989,” which translates to “High Noon: 4 June 1989.”

Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa  explained it later:

“It was a simple but effective gimmick that at the time was misunderstood by the Communists. They tried to ridicule the freedom movement in Poland as an invention of the ‘Wild’ West, especially the U.S. But the poster had the opposite impact: Cowboys had become a powerful symbol for Poles. Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom. ”

In 1953 Gary Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar for High Noon and in 1990 Lech Wałęsa became President of Poland.  The Soviet Force of Occupation (The Northern Group of Forces) did not leave Poland until 1993.

After the popular uprising in 1989 which overthrew Communist rule and following independence Poland planned to demolish around five hundred Soviet-era monuments and a mass demolition of reminders that are relics of the country’s Communist past which are seen as reminders of Soviet Russia’s invasion and subsequent decades-long political dominance of the eastern European nation until.  Thirty-five statues of Lenin and two of Josef Stalin were removed from towns and cities across Poland.

Sadly, Russia being an authoritarian,  militaristic state seems unable to understand a desire for independence and to be free of strutting jack boots from the East!

The picture above is ‘Stalin’s Boots’ a symbolic statue that stands in Budapest in Hungary.  Before it was torn down in 1956 it stood eighty foot tall and was clearly too big for its boots!

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union hundreds of statues of Lenin have been removed and demolished but there are still some to be found in more remote locations.  See this web post for details of Lenin Statue Spotting – Lenining

Most are in old Soviet Russia and its previously oppressed territories of course but there is a statue of Lenin in Montpellier in France, Potsdam in Germany (how bizarre), Athens in Greece and most surprising of all, Seattle in the USA.

Read another post about statues of Lenin.

Wroclaw, Communism, Martial Law and Freedom

“When Pope John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport he began the process by which Communism in Poland – and ultimately elsewhere in Europe – would come to an end.”  – John Lewis Gaddis, U.S. Cold War Historian

On a recent visit to Iceland  we learnt about the elves and trolls that live there in the mountains and the valleys but we didn’t see any because they are invisible but here in Wroclaw we very soon came across the dwarfs because they are not nearly so shy and can be found posing outside buildings and along the footpaths all over the city.

Dwarfs have long held a place in Polish folklore and their current iconic status as symbols of Wrocław  has political and subversive origins. Under communism they became the rather unlikely symbol of the Orange Alternative – an underground protest movement that used absurdity and nonsense to stage peaceful protests. Armed with paint cans the group specifically ridiculed the establishment’s attempts to censor public space.

During the communist era any anti-establishment graffiti or troublesome public art was quickly painted over by the authorities but upon seeing fresh censorship the Orange Alternative quickly painted over them yet again…with dwarfs.  The first in its modern statuette form was placed on a busy crossroads near a subway where Orange Alternative demonstrations often took place in 2001.

We began in the Market Square and at first it all seemed incredibly easy and within a few minutes we had spotted at least twenty or so using our guide pamphlet as a sort of I Spy Book’ that we used to have when we were children but then the going got tougher as we were forced into the adjacent streets to go in search of our quest.

To the south of the Market Square we walked as far as the old city moat and then back to the centre via the Four Temples District and then we went north again back towards the University searching high and low for the little fellows.

We walked to the river and then walked east but there was a chill wind blowing down the river valley so we abandoned the route almost as soon as we had started and headed back to the centre and along the way came across ‘Jatki’ which is the only preserved medieval street in Wroclaw and has a corner of bronze sculptures of animals, a pig, piglet, goose, duck, rooster and a rabbit at the entrance to the street.

As well as the dwarfs we were looking for a sculpture called ‘The Anonymous Pedestrians’ and found them at a busy road junction where there are fourteen statues of ordinary people going about their daily business but on one side of the road they are sinking into grey obscurity into the pavement and on the other  are rising back out into the sunshine in a form of social resurrection.

It is a wonderful piece of street art and I am prepared to say that for me it was one of the highlights of Wroclaw.

The statues are a reminder of the introduction of martial law in Poland on December 13th 1981 and a memorial to the thousands of people who disappeared (‘went underground’) in the middle of the night courtesy of the militia. In a symbolic statement the fourteen statues were erected in the middle of the night in 2005 on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the introduction of martial law.

In 1981 the Polish Communist Government was having a hard time, there was a troublesome Polish Pope who had visited the country two years earlier and given people hope of liberation, there was a severe economic crisis, workers were striking and there was the growing influence of the workers movement Solidarity, and under pressure from the USSR, General Jaruzelski decided on a brutal and violent solution.

Early in the morning Martial Law was declared, several thousand opposition campaigners were interned, it is estimated that approximately one hundred people were murdered and strikes were crushed with the help of the army and special riot police units. Many members of the opposition and underground trade-unionists were sentenced to prison terms, others were forced to emigrate.  Normal life was severely restricted with curfews and rationing, the independent trade union Solidarity was banned and its leader Lech Walesa was imprisoned.

Although martial law was lifted in 1983, many of the political prisoners were not released until the general amnesty in 1986.

Jaruzelski and the other instigators of the martial law argued that the army crackdown rescued Poland from a possibly disastrous military intervention of the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other Warsaw Pact countries similar to the earlier ‘fraternal aid’ interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 but history generally disagrees with this defensive interpretation and even today some of the leaders of the action await formal trial and punishment.

This is probably the most striking and powerful memorial depicting ordinary people that I have ever seen that perfectly captures the moment and visually records the suffering and the inhumanity, the desperation and the hope of the time and the military regime.

Humbled by this memorial and growing tired of looking for dwarfs it was just about now that we abandoned our search and returned to the Market Square to find a bar with tables in the sunshine and to settle down with a beer.

Wroclaw, Dwarf a Day (10)

The last one – I promise