Month: February 2012

W is for Warsaw

I do worry that maybe I’m being a bit too personal with my A-Z of Poland so I’m nipping right down to the foot of the alphabet to tell you about Warsaw, a place I don’t have an emotional connection to.  Some of you may know it much better than I do.  I was only there for one day, but what I saw was truly inspirational, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back.

Not that I was sure of this when I emerged from Warsawa Centralna railway station into a honking, braking cacophony of traffic.  I looked across at the unmissable 231 towering metres of the Palace of Culture and Science, took a deep breath and plunged.  Once over on the green island that surrounds the museum, things didn’t seem so bad, but that impression wasn’t to last.

Museum of Culture and Science

Time was short and my priority was to see Stare Miasto, the old town, more than 80 percent of which had been deliberately razed to the ground during World War 2.  Some of the family were already inside the museum, cameras clicking.  The rooftop panorama from the 30th floor viewing deck appealed, but it was hot and busy so I decided to reconnoitre the surrounding area, looking for a bus stop which would take us to the Old Town.  Mistake!  With hindsight it would have been faster to walk, but that was never an option as Dad was with us, and he’s not so good on his legs.  He’d been determined to accompany us, despite knowing that it would be a tiring day.  Rightly enough, as he’d never seen his Polish capital in all his 80+ years.

Let’s just say that we hopped into taxis, but not before I had seen a little too much of modern Warsaw and taken plenty of wrong turnings.  Never mind, it all faded away as I gazed in awe at Plac Zamkowy, Castle Square, with its serene Royal Palace, barely believing that this was all reconstruction.  I said that I don’t have an emotional connection to this city but it would be impossible not to be moved by what transpired here.  Following almost total annihilation, in 30 years, working from paintings and old photographs, the Old Town was painstakingly resurrected in all its glorious colour.

Plac Zamkowy from St Anne’s Church roof

It was a grand setting in which to sit and admire this seat of Polish kings from 17th century onwards.  It opens for guided tours Tuesday till Sunday (free on Sundays).  Cafes and restaurants line this majestic space, not cheap by Polish standards, but you don’t have to pay for the view if you don’t want to.  You can grab an icecream and hitch up on a wall or the stone seating if you can find a space.  Dad, as so often, charmed his way in.

I had picked up a map at the Tourist Information office in the square and it seemed a good idea to get our bearings on board the mini tourist train.  The commentary was in Polish but it didn’t matter as it was difficult to hear whilst rattling over the cobbles.  The map was useful, especially when it came to strolling out of Plac Zamkovy, past St John’s Cathedral.  It was occupied by German tanks during the war and so badly damaged that only the Gothic exterior is original.  Kanonia, behind, has views of the endless River Vistula.

St John’s Cathedral


By the River Wisła (Vistula)

I was beguiled by Rynek Starego Miasta, Old Market Square, smaller and bustling, with Syrena, the mermaid statue, at its heart.  The buildings are beautifully patterned.  No.42, the Historical Museum of Warsaw, is where you can follow the entire story of the city’s heroic rebirth.  In Summer artists stalls and florists thrive in the space.  A circuit of the charismatic narrow streets will bring you to Ulica Podwale, where a bronze statue of a small boy in a gigantic helmet symbolises the children who fought alongside their parents in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Syrena, the mermaid, in Rynek Starego Miasta

The defensive walls of the Barbican lead back to Plac Zamkovy.  A final treat before leaving the square is to climb to the observation tower in St Anne’s Church, which amazingly withstood the surrounding devastation.  The views out across the Old Town and the river provide wonderful photographic opportunities.

The Barbican

River view from St Anne’s roof

Krakowskie Przedmiescie is the start of the 4km Royal Way and an elegant stroll to Łazienki Palace.  My husband designs gardens for a living and I was sure that he would be impressed by these.  Dad was tiring and we hopped a 180 bus directly to the palace gates.  Not far inside Dad was delighted to find an open air café where he could relax with herbata (tea) while we explored.  The palace was the Summer residence of Poland’s last monarch, King Stanislaw Poniatowski, and the park was awash with canals, pavilions and statuary.  We shared the green space with nimble red squirrels and gracious peacocks.  On Sunday afternoons in Summer, the Chopin Monument is a concert venue to showcase the composer, but we were surprised to find a rock band tuning up in a handsome stone amphitheatre.

Time was beginning to run out on us and we gratefully languished in a taxi back to the centre.  We rejoined the rest of the family and ate in the striking glass shopping complex, Złote Tarasy, close to the station.  I had the strong impression that this could be a shopper’s paradise.  I left Warsaw with the happy conviction that there was much more to see and do, after a totally memorable day.

Złote Tarasy

I should mention that I travelled to Warsaw by express train from Kraków, in the company of my step-brother Tony, wife Carole and step-sister Lynne, who had travelled all the way from Canada with husband George, so it was quite a family affair.

More of my Polish adventures can be found by clicking on the Polish eagle banner at the top of this post, and in the sidebar.  You can join in with Julie Dawn Fox’s Personal A-Z challenge from the link or the logo below.  And if you want a different take on life, Frizz at Flickr Comments welcomes all comers on his A-Z challenge too.


C is for Carnaval

I fought long and hard to resist writing this, and then capitulated.  A bit like my husband when the dancing girls stopped in front of us and took each of us by the hand, to my expression of delight and his of abject dismay.  Happily for him, it was over in a flash and we were back in the crowd, minus my jester’s hat.  Shame!

Financial crisis hits Loule Carnival

It was our first experience of the Loule Carnaval procession and it fully lived up to our expectations.  Loule is an interesting market town, 16km north of Faro in the Algarve.  The remains of the castle date back to the 12th century and the almedina, the old quarter, is a maze of streets lined with artisan shops and cafes.  The Arab style market hall on Praca da Republica is a focal point, and there’s a lively street market on Saturday mornings.

Fountain and the Arabian market, Loule

Much of Loule is a modern sprawl and we were uncertain about access to this, the Algarve’s biggest Carnaval celebration.  For once, it turned out well.  We approached the town on the N270 from Sao Bras de Alportel and at lunchtime traffic was minimal.  There was the distinct impression that the townsfolk were conserving their energy to party later.  Establishing where the barriers were on the main street, Avenida Jose da Costa Mealha, we parked a little way out on Rua Alfonso de Albuquerque and strolled back into town in pleasant sunshine.

A pavement coffee and pastry to watch the excitement build was a good choice.  The 15 floats were towed gently into place and there was plenty of time to wander between them to admire and take photographs without the crowd.  Loudspeakers announced a 3pm start and it was time to seek out that good spot, having first paid your 2 euros at the kiosk.  It was entertainment in its highest form just watching the locals arriving, many of the children in costume and jiggling with excitement.  This year costume shops and stalls had been set up to encourage people to get into the spirit of Carnaval and shake off the doom and gloom.

The Portuguese are very happy to poke fun at their leaders and celebrities and the Carnaval has a political theme.  Many of the floats produced wry smiles if not outright chuckles.

Just a bit more shuffling of feet and the parade was assembled and off.  It was everything you could have hoped for and more- strange characters on stilts, who bent down to engage with the children, dancers by the score, trick cyclists, pierrots, and of course the “Samba” ladies in their provocative outfits.  As each float pulled to a standstill hoards of paper streamers and tiny keepsakes were flung into the crowd.  As the sun sank behind the buildings I had to jiggle harder to the music to keep warm.  It took over an hour for all of the floats to pass by- 2 euros very well spent.

Our dancing ladies were just feet away when Michael decided that enough was enough- he wasn’t going to be involved in another round of embarrassment.

My all too brief moment of fame, then I had to give the hat back!

We really did have a great time, but it was in fact our second experience of Carnaval, Algarve-style.  The event runs for three days, culminating on Shrove Tuesday, and on the previous Sunday we had gone to a far more low key and traditional style of parade at Paderne, a small inland village.  We were familiar with the village having spent time there seeking out an exquisite art gallery, Corte Real, and on another occasion following a trail to Paderne Castle.

The church at Paderne

Paderne regularly fools us and this time was no different.  Apart from some streamers overhead there was little sign of life in the village so, assuming we’d got it wrong, we set off for a stroll in the sunshine, down to the Fonte, a rather intriguing spring.  Half an hour later the village had mobilised into action and suddenly we were in the thick of the preparations.  The excitement was tangible.  Mystified we retired to a tiny café where a captivating toddler, dressed as a fluffy yellow chicken, was passed around its adoring family.  When we poked our noses back out again the parade was about to begin.

Although much smaller than its Loule counterpart, the procession was no less fun.  The setting was intimate, within just a few village streets, locals looking down from bedroom windows.  The lords and ladies mounted the floats and as they moved off four shimmering Chinese dragons manoeuvred into position.  I was delighted to observe that their scales had been constructed painstakingly from cartons.  The theme was Chinese business and a flutter of parasols and coolie hats took to the streets.

With enormous energy they paraded around and around, and as we made for home there were still queues at the kiosk.  We were left in no doubt that the Algarveans know how to party.

I’m entering this in the word a week photography challenge on celebrations as it just seems to fit so well.

Six Word Saturday


Music in the Churches of Tavira

Sao Sebastiao Church, Tavira

The Tavira Academy of Music have been running “Music in the Churches” for 5 years now.  It’s a wonderful opportunity and also a huge pleasure to lend support to the community, for just 2 euros.  Last Saturday we were treated to a superb performance of Mozart, Chopin and some of his own work by pianist Luis Conceicao. (wearing an overcoat and woolly muffler, bless him- it was a little “fresh” in the church)

I would love to be there for this weeks classical guitar performance by Rui Mourinho- alas I’m back in England, but with some lovely memories.  If you’re nearby he’s at Sao Sebastiao Church 6-7pm this evening.  The venues vary week to week.

Why not join in with this Six Word Saturday challenge?  The details are all on


D is for Douro

Rio Douro- the river of gold

This post is entirely aspirational.  I have long wanted to visit Porto and to cruise the Douro Valley.  So far we haven’t found a convenient flight from the UK and it’s quite a way north from the Algarve.  So permit me to dream a little.

Upper Douro by Gustavo Motta for Wikipedia

The River Douro rises in Spain and flows 897 km till it reaches the Atlantic at Porto.  Over 100 of these kilometres form the border with Spain in a series of narrow canyons- an effective barrier between two often warring nations.   The third largest river on the Iberian Peninsula, in recent times the river has been tamed by a series of locks and dams, making it navigable for all of its Portuguese length.  Looking down from the sky I always try to fathom whereabouts on the Douro we are crossing as we make our way back to Northern Europe.

Peso de Regua, by Husond for Wikipedia

The Douro is blessed with a microclimate which creates exceptional conditions for the cultivation of almonds, olives and grapes- in particular the variety of grape used in the production of port wine.  It’s no secret that I love to sit by the banks of a river with a glass or two of port.  Hopefully one day that river will be the Douro.   The region around Pinhao and Sao Joao de Pesquiera is known as vinhateiro, the centre of this liquid gold, and the quintas lining the riverbanks testify to the success of the enterprise.

Barco rabelo by Thomas Seibel for Wikipedia

Traditionally the wine was transported down the river in flat-bottomed sailboats called barcos rabelos , some of which can still be seen today at the quayside in Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite Porto.  It was stored in oak barrels to mature in the cellars of numerous wine lodges.  After blending it would be bottled then stored again till reaching the level of maturation for that particular brand.  Names like Sandemans, Cockburns and Taylors are familiar friends.

A story goes that port was originally discovered by two English gentlemen, staying at a monastery in the Upper Douro.  They found that by adding a little brandy to the local sweet wine it would be better fortified to withstand the long sea journey home.  More probably, following a period of exceptionally warm weather in 1820 unusually sweet grapes were produced which was much to the taste of the British.  In order to capitalise on the British market the wine companies added aguardente or brandy to stop fermentation and fix the sugar content.


How am I going to get around so that I see the Douro from every angle?  There seem to be lots of choices.  One thing’s for sure, I will be visiting Sao Bento railway station in Porto, not just to see its magnificent azulejo tiles but to travel up the valley.  If I’m lucky I may even catch the Saturday steam train (May to October).  I know that the colour of the vines in Autumn is a spectacular red-gold, and that white blossom clothes the valley in Spring.

Blossom time in the Douro

The Dom Luis 1 Bridge leads over the river and into Vila Nova de Gaia and from here you can take a 50 minute trip beneath the bridges to admire Porto’s skyline.  This is just a taster.  The true beauty of the Douro reveals itself on a lengthier cruise up river.  How far you choose to go depends on how long you have available, and your tolerance for messing about in boats.  Mine is infinite, but if you’ve just come for peace and quiet you’ll be perfectly happy with a good book and the gentle slap of the water.

Vila Nova da Gaia,seen from Porto,by Jonik for Wikipedia

My impression is that the further you go up the river the wilder the scenery becomes, east of Pinhao with its beautiful railway station, the most spectacular.  I’m looking forward to the deep locks that have calmed the raging rapids.  You can combine a cruise with train journey for the best of all possible worlds, or to help shorten your trip. Peso de Regua is the collection point for the wine and from which it used to be shipped down river.  Less romantically these days transport is by tanker, but you can still see the sailboats in action at Porto on 24th June, the festival of Sao Joao.

The Douro, near Miranda, from Wikipedia

You can drive up the valley for fine views but this is never much fun for the driver.  The train runs beside the Douro from Regua out towards the Spanish border, passing Pinhao and then crossing to the opposite bank all the way to Barca de Alva at the Spanish border.

Of course, you can also do the 5 star cruise from Porto all the way across into Spain, and take in the historic city of Salamanca.  This isn’t really my way (too easy! says husband Michael- and certainly not cheap).  I just know I’d want to linger somewhere that the boat didn’t, but I did say that I could dream and Salamanca does sound tempting.  Maybe for a special birthday? will give you a flavour of the area.  Be sure to check out Amarante and Mesao Frio as well as Regua and Pinhao.  provides basic rail information but you need to seek further for the steam train.  Now I’ve completed this I can’t wait to book!

My previous A-Z s of Portugal are:




Six word Saturday

Travel writing makes me so happy!

View from Porto Moniz, Madeira

As seen through a Funchal gateway

Jameos del Agua, Lanzarote

A much younger James on the beach in Lanzarote

It gives me the opportunity to revisit all those lovely memories and do a little research on new places.  It’s a win-win situation.

Meantime, pop along to Show my face to join in the Six Word Saturday challenge and see what other folk have been up to this week.


C is for Cousins

Cousin  =  kuzyn in Polish or kuzynka if you’re talking about a lady.

To complicate it a little more:

First cousin is brat cioteczny, or the female equivalent siostra cioteczna (brother or sister’s cousin).

It’s a very literal language and I love it, but it does get complicated.  Please don’t ask me any questions or I’ll have to confer with my Polish teacher!

Cousins are hugely significant to me.  I have a couple of English ones but they have been far outnumbered by my Polish family (apologies called for?).  Almost my first correspondence from Adam, son of much loved late Aunt Anna, in Kraków, informed me that I had “26 cousins, in the front line”.  That is before you start to count partners and children.  Overnight!  You could say that I was surprised.

I need to get past the sad part before I can throw myself into “cousins”.  Not ALL of them- you really don’t have THAT much time!

First I must pay tribute to Małgorzata, who I knew as Goscia.  Still in her 40s, soon after our family reunion she was diagnosed with leukaemia and within months was dead.  She was a hub in Adam’s bakery business, and a lovely vibrant woman.  I wish I’d had time to get to know her better.

Weronika,Goscia and Ula in Hotel Wierzrynek

Also I must mention Dominik.  The family are still recovering from his death in tragic circumstances.  Also in his 40s, I have lovely memories of dancing with him at the weddings.

Dominik with Dad in happier times

I have so much to be grateful for.  Not the least of these is…


Meeting the family with Adam

My first cousin and first point of contact in the family.  He is a very special man.  Deeply religious and active in their parish church, he describes himself as “all accepting”.  What a wonderful way to be, and I wish I could be more like him.

He and his family could not have been more helpful and loving if they had tried.  Adam does not speak English, though he understands a lot more of it than I do Polish, but from the outset he was reaching out to us.  He used the help of the translator on the PC and his son, Łukasz, to introduce them to us and then to organise a full itinerary so that Dad and me could visit and “meet the family”.  No detail was left out.  From our emotional arrival at the airport onwards, he escorted and transported us everywhere.

Initially we stayed with Adam and his wife Marta in their lovely 3 storey Kraków home.  Adam had extended the property so that his mum could live with them after she was widowed.  Goscia lived there too, with Adam’s children Weronika, Łukasz and Ula.

What a time we had, strolling in Kraków’s medieval square, Rynek Głowny, Aunt Anna’s arm tucked alternately into mine or Dad’s.  It was Easter week and there were flowers, corn dollies and special Easter bread rings on the stalls, in the pale wintery sunshine.  We had coffee and cake at celebrated Hotel Wierzrynek- so special, Yehudi Menuhin, George Bush, Lech Wałęnsa  and Polish royalty are among those who have dined there.  For one day only I had celebrity status.

Adam and Marta in Hotel Wierzrynek

More was to come.  Adam drove us the three and a half hour journey north to Belchatow, to the old farm house where Dad was born.  Unbeknownst to us he had arranged for ALL of the cousins to be there waiting for us.  He honked the horn as he drove in through the gates, and in seconds we were surrounded by smiling faces.  Each wore a button badge to identify them to us.  Of course, Uncle Jakub and Aunt Lusia needed no introduction.

So here we are in tears again, but tears of joy this time.

Just one more little anecdote.  Not long after we had met, my husband Michael and me were holidaying in Tavira with son James.  Adam had not met Michael or James as they didn’t make the initial trip to Poland, so he undertook to drive all the way from Poland to the Algarve to  meet us.  He had only a few days available away from the business and the drive took him 2 days in each direction.  He, Marta, Łukasz and Ula stayed in nearby Cabanas and spent their days very happily at the beach.  There was some Portuguese dancing in the square one evening and his toes were tapping, itching to join in.  That’s the kind of man he is.  Caring, full of life.

Adam and family in the Chinese restaurant, Tavira

We have been on numerous visits to Poland now, Dad sometimes even travelling alone, but one thing we can always rely on is that Adam will be there to organise and take care of us.  Full credit to Marta too- they have a wonderful marriage and we were privileged to spend their Silver Wedding celebrations with them in the Tatry Mountains.

Luckily there are lots more letters in the alphabet.  I shall need most of them to finish introducing the Polish family.  But this A-Z challenge isn’t just about me.  There are lots of fascinating stories and lifestyles being introduced on Julie Dawn Fox’s My personal A-Z challenge.  Visit the hub site or try out some of these.

That last one’s a cheat- it’s me with my “Portuguese head on”, for those who don’t know me.  See you soon.