15 December 2019

Polish Pure Spirits

A Christmas Kraków…..

It's that time of year.  You know.  Advent.  Christmas.  Winter.  The polls.

So, I took my wife to Poland, to see how they do things there.

What do you know?  Fine weather, and not a poll in sight…..  Yay!

Kraków was Poland’s capital from the 11th century to the close of the 16th and with approximately three quarters of a million inhabitants it is the largest city in Southern (Lesser) Poland.  It lies on the Vistula River (the Wisła), Poland's largest river which drains into the Baltic Sea near the port of Gdańsk. With a length of 651 miles it is a waterway of great importance.  Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978, was born in the nearby town of Wadowice, studied at the Jagiellonian University and later became archbishop of Kraków.

So, is Kraków worth the trip?  The answer is: 'without doubt'.  It has become something of a habit, our wintry marketeering in Europe.  Last year Vienna.  The year before Prague.  And Kraków does not disappoint.  The Market Square (Rynek Główny) is a wonder; the old town characterful and relatively unscathed by the 20th century and its errors.  Inspired churches abound, from gothic to neo, and the Christmassy kitsch is also lavishly represented.  Stalls seething with pans of pork knuckles, grills with enormous sausages, hot plates griddling sheep's cheeses to serve with cranberry jam, barrels of mulled wine…..  And baubled trees, and shiny angels….  What more do you need to relieve the mind from the fatigues of politics and austerity?

Castles, churches, chapels, images of Saint Jan Pawel II (The Beatle Pope) [whose daughter I taught] are all manageable for us, but the plural invitations to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and the Wieliczka Salt Mine were beyond our reach, as five hours or so of guided tour would have taxed me, let alone my little half….

We stroll; we climb church towers; we ascend to 270 metres above the River Vistula in a tethered balloon.  We visit the Wawel Royal Castle, with its Tapestries of Sigismund II Augustus, and the Cathedral, with the royal tombs, and we meet with artist Jan Hrynkowski in the brutalist Main Building of the National Museum in Kraków. I really like him….

Thursday is our Wedding Anniversary.  Thirty-five years, I think, but no one remembers it.  Not really surprising I suppose, since Amanda remembers less and less as the days go by.  And as for me, well, to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan: I used to care, but things have changed…..

Friday the 13th, and I check my iPhone at 4.30 GMT.  As I suspected, the negative aura surrounding J Corbyn Esq. has had the effect Dom had bargained for, and I attempt, ineffectively, to return to slumber.  

The remarkable thing is that, on emerging from our hotel after a relaxed breakfast, the world has not collapsed.  The white islands of Britain (pace those poor souls in the antipodes) may have been blasted by a pyroclastic cloud of Borisian vomit, but Christmassy Kraków is as quiet and calm as it was last night.  

I take heart. Every cloud has a lining, even if it ain't always silver.  One of the advantages (I try to persuade myself) of leaving the EU will be that Europe will be even more alluring and exciting to visit.  And places like Kraków will increase in attraction.

Let's Krakón…..

A Christmas Kraków wouldn't be a Kraków without a joke in it, even if it is one that even Basil Brush might be ashamed of.


I took my wife to the Christmas Market in Kraków

Oh really?  And what did you get for her?

I'm afraid I got nothing for her….

And why, pray, was that?

Because she's priceless!!!  

(Boom! Boom!)

People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed

Bob Dylan
Things Have Changed


  • We travelled with EasyJet from Luton, times and prices very reasonable.
  • The only money is Polish złoty, and the exchange rate is between four and five to the pound.  Credit cards are accepted and ATMs are everywhere.
  • We stayed at the Hotel Elektor (Szpitalna 28, Old Town) which is quiet, warm, comfortable and very conveniently located for the Market Square.
  • We can recommend Il Calzone (Starowislna 15a) as a place to eat.  Italian but not exclusively, and with excellent Polish wine.
  • Also highly recommended is Pierozki u Wicenta (ul. Bozego Ciala 12) in the Kazimierz quarter, where traditional pierogi (stuffed dumplings, not unlike ravioli) are superb. And that is all they do!
  • In the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) in the centre of the Market Square, there is the elegant Kawiarnia Noworolski, a fine place for coffee and people watching, and also, on the second floor, is the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art, with some great pictures.

  • Several of the churches we visited are undergoing extensive renovation work, but the Basilica of St Mary, with its Veit Stoss Altar and its Bugle-Call Tower, is a must, and both the Franciscan and Dominican Churches are impressive.
  • Beer (piwo) and vodka are inexpensive.  I found Café Philo (ul. Św. Tomasza 30) to be interesting and hospitable and the TramBar (ul. Stolarska 5) was funky though more expensive, but I particularly enjoyed the quality of beer and the company of strangers in the Non Iron pub (ul. Św. Marka 27) described on one website as a small, dingy, obscure, locals bar…..  yeah, right up my street (and only a few steps from my hotel)!

Dziękuję i dobranoc

8 December 2019

Bread of Heaven

Cwm Rhondda

Guide me, O thou great redeemer,
Pilgrim through this barren land; 
I am weak, but thou art mighty,
Hold me with thy powerful hand;
Bread of heaven,
bread of heaven
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.

Bread of Heaven is a song from Wales. The words are by William Williams, also known as Williams Pantycelyn, an 18th century Welsh poet. The hymn took its current shape, however, around 1905, when the English version of the lyric was put to a tune entitled Cwm Rhondda (after the valley of the same name) by John Hughes, another great Welshman. The song quickly became deeply beloved of the Welsh and can be heard sung ceremonially at sporting events, especially rugby matches, as a kind of unofficial national anthem.

In Wales itself, it is generally known either as Bread of Heaven or as Cwm Rhondda.  Elsewhere it is usually referred to by the first line of the lyric, Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer.

Shortly after my mother died at the end of October, I was in Wales.  I had got up early in the morning in Bristol and driven to Abergavenny, from where, after a bap and a cappuccino from a fine Italian café, I set out to climb The Sugar Loaf, one of the most prominent and popular peaks in the Black Mountains and indeed the Brecon Beacons. The hill was originally known as Mynydd (mountain) Pen-y-fâl (top of the plateau) but the name has now disappeared in favour of the current denomination.

The Sugar Loaf is one of the three mountains around the market town of Abergavenny - the other two being Blorenge to the south and The Skirrid to the north-east. Reaching the height of 596 metres above sea level at the trig point it is not the highest mountain in South Wales but it cuts a fine outline against the sky showing off the profile which gives it its name. 

It consists mainly of old red sandstone from the Devonian period (about 416 to 360 million years ago) in common with the rest of the Black Mountains. The summit is covered with a thin layer of a quartz conglomerate, which is a hard rock and which protected the hill from being eroded away in the last ice age, when the Usk valley to the south, and the Grwyne Fawr valley to the north, were formed by glaciers.

Open now the crystal fountain
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through:
Strong deliverer,
strong deliverer;
Be thou still my strength and shield;
Be thou still my strength and shield.

I left the town behind in Chapel Lane, and followed the track up and into Deri Fach wood, where the path climbs through a close-knit stand of oaks for nearly a kilometre.  The trees then thinned and the route continued through bracken and gorse, brown and scrubby at this time of year.

As I reached the top of the heathy ridge the summit came into view, still a way off and high above me.  I could see why it has been named The Sugar Loaf - not that we have loaves of sugar any more, but I know that refined sugar used to be sold in moulded conical masses.  In Middle English the word loaf was used for sugar, but this came from the Old English term (hlāf) for portions of bread….

Anyway, the summit beckoned, and, somehow drawn by a primitive desire to approach heaven to wish my mother well at those pearly gates, I strove painfully up the steep slope.

It was late November, and though I had felt warm when toiling up through the woods far below, at the summit there was a bitter wind, and the ground was glittering with ice spicules.  

Not how I imagine heaven, but it was exhilarating.  It was not a day of crystal clarity, but The Skirrid loomed in and out of the clouds, and from the peak there were misty views of the hills and valleys around.

I was early enough to be alone for a spell, and inspired by Wales, by the majesty of the landscape, and by love for my mother, I raised my voice to cry out…..

Songs of praises,
Songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee;
I will ever give to thee.

On the way down I was awed by the glory of the natural world.  Distant hills, and mossy trees, a splashing stream in the idyllic beech woods of St Mary's Vale.  

I felt restored.  There is a heaven, even if it is hard to catch hold of.  Even if it is elusively always there, before us, unseen....

Less than a week later, in St Peter's church in Berkhamsted, I was joined by family and friends, and together we sang….

Bread of heaven,
bread of heaven
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.

And for a moment, fleetingly, I thought I believed that my redeemer liveth....  Or so, I wanted to feel, at least, my mother is in good hands....

In Memoriam

Anna Stella Gibbs (née McMullin)

February 21st 1923 - October 30th 2019