Polish tales - Wojtek the Soldier Bear

I wanted to write about one of my favourite Polish stories, or Wojtek the bear.  It's a true story and is actually pretty well known, but just in case you haven't heard I'll provide my own overview and some links to more detailed information.

Poland has a really interesting history and I can highly recommend spending some time reading about it.  But my favourite story of them all is about Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear who was bought in Iran by the Polish II Corps soldiers.  He was actually enlisted into the Polish army, as a Private and eventually got promoted to Corporal!  

He was with the Polish army at the Battle of Montecassino in Italy in 1944 and helped with moving crates of ammo and artillery shells.  He was often rewarded with beer, which became his favourite drink. He also enjoyed smoking (or eating) cigarettes.  He loved wrestling with the soldiers and was taught to salute when greeted.

After the war, he was moved to Edinburgh Zoo and spent the rest of his life there.

If you'd like to read more about Wojtek, I highly recommend this book by Aileen Orr which really tells the full story.

Click on the picture to go straight to Amazon

And if you wanted to know more about Poland's fascinating history in more detail, and spanning back hundreds of years, I'd have to suggest this book by Norman Davies

Click on the picture to go straight to Amazon

Recommended blog!

So I got a pretty awesome email the other day from someone who had come across my site and had included it in their recommended blogs for Poland.  They also said some really nice things about my photos! I was really overcome with appreciation and proud to be included, it's no something I expected or set out to achieve, but it's very welcome.

You can read the article on https://www.expatfocus.com/c/aid=4041/articles/poland/poland---recommended-blogs/ and I'd also recommend having a look around the rest of the site as it's full of really awesome information for anyone considering becoming an expat, or anyone that already took the plunge! And welcome to anyone who has come to visit from over there! 

Now normally my posts are full of pictures, but for this one, I'm just going with the old internet favourite of a picture of my cat :) 

Home renovations in Poland!

So it's been a while since I posted any updates, not because the smog killed me, but mostly because I've been doing some renovations on my house.

Back in 2014 my wife & I bought a house in Bochnia, which you can read more about here.  It's a 100 year old miner's cottage, because Bochnia is home to a really old salt mine and you can read about that on their website here.  I've lived in Bochnia for 3 years now and still haven't visited the salt mine, so I can't comment on what it's like.

Our house is on a quiet street about 10 minutes drive from the town centre, but we have a hectare of land which is home to deer, foxes, owls, pheasants and much more wildlife.  And it's only 30 minutes by train to Krakow.  So it's really a compromise between town and country living.


This is from the top of our garden, looking out over Niepolomice forest. Behind me is the rest of our land.

We bought the house knowing that it would need some work, and so far we have replaced the old coal boiler with a modern gas boiler which is much more efficient and actually lowers our heating costs in the winter.  I've also painted most of the rooms.  The house came with all the furniture and fixings, including garden tools and we still have most of the old furniture but are slowly changing things to our own.  This time we decided to hit the kitchen! 

Beautiful right?

A very old, very nasty green kitchen, with lino on the floor and a ton of silicon filling the huge gaps between the sink & cooker.  When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to spend my Saturdays working with my Granddad who was a plumber, and after school I went into the trade and actually fitted a few kitchens, so I at least had some idea of what was going to happen. 

We also decided to redo the entrance hall which had an extremely wonky floor covered in 2 layers of 70's lino, which my dog had recently developed a taste for.

I returned home from work one day to find this! 

I returned home from work one day to find this! 

Unfortunately the floor was so badly built when they did the extension that we couldn't have anything other than lino there, so we have some new lino there and will need to save up to repair the poor job that was done by the previous owners.

However, the kitchen floor was in better condition and almost level even though it is also part of the 1980's extension.  So we went for some tiles on the floor and got a friend of my brother in law to do the floor and wall tiles.  Everything else, I did by myself.  We ordered a flat-pack kitchen online from Leroy Merlin, and then headed into Krakow to buy some other things, like the worktop, sink and some other bits & pieces.  I learned that my car will hold a 3 meter long worktop, although it will smash the windscreen if you push slightly too much.  That's an extra 800zl on top of the kitchen costs :(

We had another issue with the floor tiles being smashed by the courier, but luckily the second attempt they managed to deliver them in one piece.  Once the tiling was done, and Bogdan did a fantastic job, I booked a couple of days off work and got to work on the rest.  It all went pretty smoothly, and over the course of 4 long days, it was all installed.  I still have some minor things to do, such as putting silicon around the edge of the worktop and finishing the doorstep but we are really happy with the outcome. A new oven has been ordered which will match the style of the new kitchen as well. I've put some pictures below of the process

It was a tiring but enjoyable experience and I'm now keen to continuing improving the rest of the house, I'm just lacking the money at the moment!  My favorite part has to be visiting a local sawmill to buy the wood for the skirting boards and doorsteps.  The doorsteps started out as just rough planks, and I sanded and shaped them to look much nicer, I'll add a photo at some point after I stain and fit them, but they look amazing! 

The costs were actually pretty reasonable, at around 7500zl in total (not including the broken windscreen).

 

Kraków - Dying to Breathe

There is currently a lot of discussion in the Krakow area about the levels of smog and pollution, actually it affects Malopolska and much of the rest of Poland as well.  It tends to happen most winters, but it's definitely getting worse each year.

Many Poles are used to burning wood & coal to stay warm in the winter months, however due to low incomes and high fuel prices, many turn to burning cheap coal, or even trash to make it through the colder times.  This produces smoke which is full of carcinogens and small pollution particles which are 6-8 times the recommended maximum.

Krakow is currently ranked by the EU as having the 3rd dirtiest air in Europe, beaten only by a couple of cities in Bulgaria (Pernik & Plovdiv).

naszemiasto.pl

naszemiasto.pl

The government is taking action, slowly, and there are incentives in place to replace coal boilers with more economical options.  However, when I changed my coal boiler last year to a modern gas boiler, it cost just over 10,000zl (2500USD/2000GBP).  This was due to needing not only a new boiler, but an entire heating system.  In many old buildings, the original radiators and pipes may not be upto the standard needed to use a modern gas boiler as the pressures involved are much higher.  We found this out when one of our old radiators exploded! Since Krakow is full of old buildings, the owners may face similar problems and the grants for boilers may not cover these extra expenses.

Another issue that I personally believe causes more pollution is the number of vehicles on Krakow's roads.  There are constant traffic jams on many of the main roads, people drive because it's a status symbol to own a car, plus there are no regular checks on vehicle conditions or the levels of emissions they produce, so there are old bangers coughing out massive amounts of fumes everywhere.  Maybe a decent Park & Ride system is needed? Maybe even congestion charging, similar to London?

Krakow has a really good public transport system, it's cheap and regular.  I make a 40 minute train journey into the city each day and it costs me 5zl (1.50USD/1GBP), whereas it would cost me around 30-40zl to drive, and take almost twice as long.  So why do people still drive into Krakow and contribute to the smog which they love to complain about? Selfishness, idiocy, some sense that driving makes them better than everyone else? It's probably a mix of the above, and a little bit of convenience.  Although, it's probably not that convenient when you try to find a parking space in Krakow.

Sure, you may not look as fancy in a tram as you do in your Mercedes which is leased by your fictional tax evasion company, but you're not helping the problem which affects everyone in the city.  But I doubt that these people care, because they only do what they want and screw everyone else.  This is an attitude that you will see in many situations in Polish life, if you spend enough time here.

I quit smoking in May 2016 because I was feeling tired and sick all the time and I'm getting older and need to take care of myself. 

But according to activist group Krakowski Alarm Smogowy if I'm breathing the air in Krakow, I'm effectively smoking 2500 cigarettes each year.  In the past few days, I've been feeling it too.  I'm more out of breath, tired and have a nasty taste in the back of my throat.  You feel dirty and like you need a shower, your clothes stink.  Despite my love for Poland and Krakow, I'd find it very hard to recommend visiting in winter.  Try a mountain city, like Zakopane instead, or be prepared to dress appropriately...

A look at the future of Krakow's tourists

A look at the future of Krakow's tourists

I hope this post doesn't deter people from visiting Poland in general, as it is a fascinating country with a rich and diverse history.  It has some of the prettiest cities that I've ever seen.  It's just nicer when you don't have to chew the air.

A weekend away in the Tatra Mountains

It was a pretty hectic week as we had our annual conference event at my company and everyone descended onto Krakow from across Europe, Asia & the USA.  We spent 3 days in a hotel next to the river watching presentations and listening to execs.

However, I was lucky enough to be invited on the management Ski weekend which was to be held in the Zakopane region of the Tatra Mountains.  The best thing? Everything was organised and paid for, I just had to turn up and fall down a mountain.

So at around 3pm on the Friday, we climbed into a couple of Mercedes vans provided by Krakow Airport Express which my company uses for all transfers in Krakow.  They provide an extremely professional service with modern, clean, luxury cars, and the prices aren't too bad either if you fancy treating yourself.  The drive took a couple of hours and we soon arrived at the Belvedere Hotel, a recently renovated 4* hotel close to the centre, and at the foot of the Giewont Mountain massif.

Giewont mist

Our plan was to have dinner on the Friday night, skiing on the Saturday, followed by some thermal baths and then more dinner, returning to Krakow on the Sunday morning.  Everything went according to plan, more or less.

Our Friday night meal was at Bakowo Zohylina, a traditional mountain cabin with a huge fireplace in the middle and a loud, lively atmosphere.  A live band played while we ate our bread with lard, grilled smoked sheep's cheese, and huge meat platter.  All washed down with some local beer.  We then went off into the city centre to continue partying, with a snowball fight on the way.

IMG_0451.JPG

On the Saturday morning, we woke early, ate some breakfast at the hotel and nursed our slight hangovers with some strong coffee and headed outside to meet the skiing instructor who had been hired to organise our trip to Bialka Tatranska.  I had never skied before, so was a bit nervous.  But the slopes looked easy enough for beginners and we hired all the equipment there and the beginners among us started our lesson, whilst the more experienced people went off in search of more technical slopes.

I absolutely hated it at first, and could not understand why people enjoyed it at all.  I had no idea how to control anything and kept sliding backwards into a net.  Our first descent took around 2 hours, and by the time we reached the bottom I was in all kinds of agony.  But we persevered and after a short break for lunch we headed back up for a second run.  This time I was a lot more confident and it only took me 20 minutes, with a couple of stops to wait for the others to catch up.  It was enjoyable and I had started to understand why people enjoyed it.

Two runs was enough though and we then waited for the rest of the group to return and headed into the thermal baths which are part of the same resort.  It's basically a huge swimming pool complex and the pools are geo-thermally heated.  This means you can swim outside, even when it's -20C.  It was only around -5C when we were there, but we still made the most of the outside areas.  You can also have a beer in the pool, so we also made the most of that.  There is also a pretty nice looking hotel there, so you could probably have a great ski trip, relatively cheap (comparing to the Alps, or other European resorts).  You can check out the hotel here

You can see the steam from the thermal baths, and the proximity of the slopes

You can see the steam from the thermal baths, and the proximity of the slopes

All in all, it was a great experience and I'm really glad that I managed to snag an invite.  I'm now considering more ski trips with my wife and her family as they all ski regularly.  If you have never tried it before, I highly recommend Bialka Tatranska to learn.