Krakow

Djen Dobry.

For those with a smattering of Polish, you may have picked up that I’ve just said hello. Or, if the pronunciation is wrong, I may have just insulted your garden!

We flew out to Krakow on Monday for three nights staying in the Hotel Senacki, on Grodzka and not far from the centre of the old town, the Rynek Glowny. I’ve never been to Eastern Europe and Krakow was described as a wonderful example of architecture. As Martin, our Krakow Shuttle driver, took us the 15km from the airport to the city, we seemed to be driving through the countryside of any country. I had seen lots of individual houses with colourful roofs as we came in to land, and they had reminded me of Scandinavian houses. Now, driving past them, I could see that some were built of wood, whilst others were of whitewashed stone. Many looked relatively new and a lot of what I would call luxurious. Between the houses were large flat parcels of land that didn’t seem to be fenced of or belonging to any of them.

Then we entered the suburbs and it could have been any city. But once through the traffic and across the River Wistula, I could see how Krakow differed from other European cities. As the centre of government for Greater Germany in WW2, it had escaped any significant damage and the remarkable architecture had survived intact. We drove down narrow, cobbled back streets until we caught sight of the hotel.

Hotel Senacki was situated opposite the church of St Peter and St Paul on Grodzka, one of the main streets of the old town. It was a small place and the staff were very helpful throughout our stay. Checking in was quick and after asking for a change of room, we had a great view out onto Grodzka and the church opposite.

Over the next two and a half days, we managed to cram in a lot of sightseeing, walking and eating! The fantastic summer weather made the walking most enjoyable, with lovely cool mornings and evenings and warm days. We walked around the old town and into the Market Square, the Rynek Glowny and it became our destination each morning before setting off on our planned trips. Early morning, before the tourists arrived, meant the square was quiet and empty, with only the cafe staff and delivery vans around.

On Monday night, we called in to the church of St Peter and St Paul, where a sextet of strings played a selection of classics from Vivaldi, Bach and Albinoni. It was a lovely experience, although the acoustics meant that some of the melodies were lost in the reverberation of the church.

On the Tuesday, we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, two places that we had both wanted to see but had also felt apprehensive about going to. That visit is worthy of another blog, which I will write when I feel I can. In a long day, we also visited the Wieliczka salt mine before dining in one of the open air restaurants in the Market Square.

The salt mine has been producing salt for more than 700 years and only recently closed down. Visitors descend 380 wooden steps to reach the 1st level some 64m below ground. From there, 2km of passages lead visitors through tunnels and chambers, some dating back to the 16th Century. The mine is a museum and most of the chambers have displays of figures and machinery and some have fantastic carvings made from the salt that was being mined. Particularly spectacular are the three churches built below ground. The largest, the Chapel of St Kinga, is still used for services once a week and weddings are held here, with the reception being hosted in the nearby restaurant. Working in the salt mine was seen to be a privilege, as the salt commanded good prices and the miners were paid well. Conditions in the mine were good. We ended up in the deepest souvenir shop I’ve ever been in, at 134m below ground. From there, we made our way back to the stairs but this time we were able to take a fast and cramped lift back to the surface.

On Wednesday, we walked around the city and visited some of the churches. 98% of Poles are Catholics and the multitude of churches in Krakow reminded me of some of the cities we visited in Italy, where there seemed to be a church around every corner. We’d popped in to the Dominican Church early on Tuesday and noticed several people praying there before heading off to work. It struck me that this was so different to Britain, where people tend to worship as an act once a week, almost out of habit.

We walked into the Market Square and around, heading out to the north in search of the Church of the Reformed Franciscans, where beneath the church, the crypt has a micro climate that has caused the bodies lying there to naturally mummify. Although visitors can access the crypt by request, it wasn’t open when we were there. Instead, we stood and listened to a service going on.

Moving on, we reached St Florian’s Gate, the last remaining part of the old city wall. Krakow was frequently attacked and this wall gave the town some measure of security. To commemorate the attacks, a bugler sounds a call (the hejnal) on the hour from the taller spire of St Mary’s church in the square. The northern tower is taller because it was used as a watchtower and here, legend has it, the watchman was interrupted during his alarm call by an arrow to the throat. The bugle call that now sounds ends abruptly in memory of that event.

Inside St Mary’s church, the dark Gothic décor was striking, and set off with gold detailing. But the main reason we were here was to see the magnificent High Altar. It was started in 1477 and took 12 years to complete. It consists of 12 panels in the Gothic style depicting key events from the story of Christ. After  swift coffee in the square, we c;limbed the old Town Hall tower to get a panoramic view of the Old Town.

Wawel Hill is the location for the old castle of Krakow, and Krakow Cathedral. Legend says that Krakow was founded when a local hero, Krak, defeated a dragon that lived under Wawel Hill. The cave is still there but the dragon is now a sculpture that breathes fire every so often.  When Krakow was the capital of Poland the kings were crowned in the cathedral and lived in the castle. Today, it is open to the public and forms an imposing site overlooking the Vistula. One of the walls of the open courtyard in the castle is said to be one of the world’s sources of spiritual energy. I encountered one of these sites before, on Pen y Fan, and spent some time talking to a man who was completely convinced of this. With all the walking, our energy levels were dropping and no amount of standing next to the walls helped.

Suddenly and far too quickly, it was time to go and everything seemed to happen in a rush. One minute we were having breakfast, the next we were waiting in the departure area and then we were landing at Bristol.

I enjoyed Krakow, and while I wouldn’t want to go back there as a place to stay (I’ve seen everything I wanted to see in the city) I would use it as a centre to travel further.

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How does the sun cut his hair?

Eclipse!

Sorry. Over the last few days, the weather has been good enough and the evenings just long enough for Rufus and I to head out to Cefn Bryn after work for a stroll. Every time, there has been a beautiful sunset. I love sunsets (I love sunrises even more). In many photographic circles, they are considered cliched and unworthy, but I don’t move in those circles and so I keep taking my cliches, and enjoying them too.

At sunset, things start to calm down.  Apart from traffic noise, which isn’t intrusive on Cefn once you are out of sight of the road, it gets quiet, and usually still as the wind drops. The light is less intense, shadows are longer and the orange glow makes things appear warmer than they really are. There has been a haze on the last few evenings which has the effect of softening colours and turning everything into pastel shades. And when the sun finally reaches the horizon, it is a deep red colour.

Staying with the sun, there was an eclipse on the 20th, and where I live the moon covered around 90% of the sun. With the help of a welder’s mask and a variable density filter (thanks Pete), I was able to view and get some photos. It was eerie as the skies slowly darkened and when I went to the window in the office, there was a great mix of people all standing to witness the event using a variety of filters, some of which seemed distinctly dodgy. But more importantly, it brought a load of people of all ages and roles together more effectively than any scheduled meeting.

Outside, it was chilly and the shadows were odd. Being used to sunsets coming from the west, it was odd to see the different direction of light as it faded. I can just imagine what the people from thousands of years ago must have thought when their source of heat and light disappeared. And the relief when it started getting warmer and brighter again.

Today, as a reward for behaving at the vet when he had his vaccinations (he always does, but today he had a couple of compliments on how well behaved he was and how healthy he looked), Rufus had two walks. We started off at Broadpool where we were watched intensely by a solitary Canada Goose, who called over and over again. But Rufus didn’t want to play. Then we headed on up to the River Tawe, where despite my best efforts to fall in the river while jumping across between rocks, we climbed up to the waterfalls on the west side of the valley. Compared to last week, when I could barely move from the sofa, I felt so much better. Add to that the warm sun, which made it feel like a summer’s day, and watching Rufus bounding between and over tufts of grass or paddling in the water, and it was a most enjoyable morning.

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Dust

As a bloke, I am expected to deny the existence of dust. It is a fiction, a construct created by ‘another gender’ to make us feel guilty.

Alas, as a sufferer of asthma, I am only too aware of the existence of dust as it is one of the things that can (almost literally) bring me to my knees. The irony is that to get rid of the dust that causes me problems, I have to disturb the dust and that act causes me problems. Even the best filtered vacuum cleaner throws out some dust. When I empty the filter chamber, I have to cover my mouth and nose. When I clean the filter, I have to do so outside and even then I will feel the effects and have to use my asthma pump.

Yesterday, after Rufus and I had taken the air on the hills above Pontardawe, I decided to risk all and clean the house. Despite taking my time, vacuuming a room at a time and being ultra careful when depositing the dust in the bin, I quickly felt the tightening of the chest and wheezing and within minutes, I was struggling to breathe and coughing. In all, I used the inhaler three times in the afternoon. The last time I felt like this was the first time I had a serious asthma attack as an adult in 2010.

House dust is dead skin, dust mite faeces and in my house, animal fur. If there is any damp in the house, it can also be formed from spores of mould that you may not even know is there. There is nothing to be done short of living in a smooth plastic bubble. So I resigned myself to a wheezy, coughy afternoon of rugby and dealt with it. It makes me miserable; it stops me from being able to relax but at least sitting quietly on the sofa didn’t disturb any more dust and slowly, far too slowly, my chest untightened until at around 7pm, with the aid of one more sniff of the inhaler, Rufus and I went for a second walk of the day. The fresh air was most welcome and we took it easy walking the streets around the house.

This morning, after a much better night, we went out again onto Cefn Bryn to take advantage of the morning sun. I suspect part of my chesty problem is a bug that is doing the rounds in work. Nevertheless, a call in to the doctor is on the cards next week.

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High Tide

The tide on Whiteford beach is scary. One minute the water is so far away that I can barely make out the breakers, and the next they spray is covering my glasses with a thin coat of salt. I’ve watched it race towards the shore in a continuous roll, I’ve felt it snap at my heels as I’ve retreated from it and I’ve walked out to the lighthouse when it’s been at its lowest. The prospect of a higher than usual (I’d read it would be the highest for 18 years, which is a lunar cycle) Spring tide this morning eased the decision on where to take Rufus for his weekend walk.

We left the house in the dark and reached the car park near Cwm Ivy before the sun had come up. By the time we’d walked through the woods and onto the beach, a beautiful morning was shaping up. The sea was choppy and the tide was fully in. It was the highest I’ve ever seen there, with the waves undercutting of the dunes in places. We walked along a narrow strip of sand between dune and sea until the waves barred the way, when we climbed up onto the tops of the dunes and made our way across the headland to the opposite side.

Out of the wind it was warm as the sun rose, not like a February morning at all. Walking in sand is tiring but great exercise and we had plenty of that as we made our way to the tip of the headland. Once out of the shelter, the wind picked up again and it was time to don gloves and hat and do up the coat. Rufus, with his permanent fur coat was happy to have a cooling breeze again.

We’d spent less than an hour in the dunes but already the tide had receded significantly. The lighthouse was still surrounded by the sea and on its metal skeleton, cormorants perched, warming in the sun. On the beach, lapwings and sandpipers scurried to and fro with the incoming and outgoing waves. As we walked back along the beach, a huge flock of sandpipers flew low over the sea. There must have been more than 100 of them flying parallel to the shore.

There was a lot of rubbish on the high water mark; most of it seemed to be plastic and I wished I’d brought a bag to put it in. I grabbed a tangle of plastic fishing line, which I brought home to dispose of. I’ve seen first hand what that can do and it’s not pleasant. One of the items washed up was an old football. It seemed to be a decent one, with stitched panels, and there was no sign of damage. It was just a little deflated (well, you would be too if you’d been abandoned on the beach). I kicked it, Rufus chased it and there followed a new form of football; one in which use of the mouth was allowed. I tried explaining to Rufus the rules of the game, but he just ran off and dared me to get the ball off him. He carried the ball for quite a while – unusual for him – and only dropped it when lured by the tempting aroma of some long dead aquatic creature. So I brought it home and it’s now in the back garden.

By now, the tide had all but disappeared and where earlier we were hugging the sand dunes, now we were able to range across the sand. But somehow, we’d done more than 5 miles, so it was time to head back to the car. Wet paws collected much sand as we crossed the dunes again and soon we were on the long uphill drag to the car park. A deep puddle solved the sandy paws issue and we were both grateful to reach the car.

Snoring occurred in the car on the way home, but I would not betray our friendship by saying from whom the snoring came.

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Adventures in the world of slow

After yesterday’s fun in the snow, today was always going to be a little slower. And in a triumph of wordplay, I decided to head off to the River Tawe to start using slow shutter speed techniques with my 10 stop ND filter on the waterfalls.

As if to confirm the slow nature of today, a selection of Sunday drivers littered the roads. It’s not just their inappropriate use of speed I dislike, it’s the generally poor standard of driving that comes with the Sunday driver; braking hard at the speed sign rather than slowing to meet it, failing to indicate and wandering all over the road to name three. All three of these were in evidence today.

At the river, we wandered and strolled, occasionally stopping for me to take long exposure photos. Slightly more occasionally, we stopped for Rufus to catch little stones, chase them into the water and for him to bark at me if I got anything wrong with either activity. Things that count as being wrong are:

  • Not throwing a stone
  • Throwing a stone in the wrong place
  • Taking too long between stone throwing
  • Taking too long to operate the camera
  • Not handing out enough treats

He’s a good teacher though, and is never slow to correct me if I make mistakes.

Before we knew it, we’d been out for over an hour. The clouds were beginning to peep over the hills and the temperature was starting to drop again as the sun became obscured by the first signs of the approaching rains. So we set off back to the car. I was surprised at how far we’d come along the river, which is well below the level of the road, and it took a little longer to reach the car than I had expected.

Our journey back included encounters with a driver who seemed to indicate at every roundabout junction, but never acted on the indication. I actually got quite good at anticipating where he was going by the position of the car on the road. Despite his attempts to run me off the road, we arrived home and settled down to a day of slow.

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49er

“Pen y Fan is that way. If you carry on in the direction you’re going now, you’ll fall off the edge.”

I’ve seen some inappropriate things and actions on the mountains but today ticked a few new ones. I’ve climbed Pen y Fan in just about every weather condition. Some of the best times have been in poor conditions; I particularly like walking there in the snow. This morning the weather forecast was overcast, drab, drizzle. Not ideal conditions, but I had a particular reason go there today. It would be the 49th time I’d got to the summit. I wanted to get the 49th out of the way because I’d like to make the 50th time something a little special.

Off we set from the car park at around 8am, hoping to avoid the masses. I needn’t have worried as the weather was enough to put people off at this time. It was cold and grey and I could see we would be walking into cloud before long. I couldn’t see any snow, though.

Around 15 minutes later, we hit the snow line. The fog was thick and very quickly, the snow went from muddy slush to a white covering that hid the path. At the same time, a light drizzle started. I checked on Rufus – he hasn’t done anything this strenuous for a while. But he was so far ahead of me up the hill that I had to assume he was enjoying showing up my lack of fitness.

We trudged on up, occasionally passing people coming down. I was surprised at how many had made it before us. The fog thickened again and the visibility dropped to a few metres. The snow made it hard to judge distance and the best gauge I had was Rufus, who stood out nicely against the bright white.

The drizzle was intermittent and as we got higher, so it became icy. Rufus didn’t seem to be suffering from the cold; in fact it wasn’t that cold as there wasn’t much of a breeze. It was bright too and we couldn’t have been far below the top of the clouds. It reminded me of the white out conditions on Ben Nevis I encountered in 2007, but without the risk of sheer drops either side of the path. The snow became deeper and the path was defined by footprints, bounded by deeper prints where feet had gone into the drainage ditches.

I stopped to chat to a walker coming down and I remarked on the number of people I’d passed coming down. He said they’d all turned back because to the conditions. I admire them for that; I’ve turned back on Pen y Fan and other mountains. It was something I was considering today, but Rufus was doing fine and I was confident of the route. As I stood and chatted, Rufus began to yap and nudge my leg. It was clearly time to carry on.

The traverse across the ridge in the lee of Corn Du is flat and it offers an opportunity to rest from the incessant uphill from the car park. Today it was most welcome, but the visibility coupled with the thick and unspoiled snow made it strange and a challenge. It seemed from the footprints that most people had indeed turned back at the ridge; the footprints visible now were old. We carried on but I had Rufus on the lead now, as I didn’t want him to disappear in the fog. He was still full of energy and threatening to bound off as I clearly wasn’t moving quickly enough for him.

A final short and unwelcome pull up on to Pen y Fan itself and suddenly we stumbled on the summit cairn. We stopped for a few photos but there was nothing to keep us on top, so we set off back the way we’d come. Which was easier said than done as there was little in the way of any indication of where the path was. I’ve been in this situation before and a combination of knowing which way the wind was blowing on the way up and remembering isolated marks int he ground meant I was confident of finding the path down. Still, there were a few moments of that thrill when you realise the risk. In small doses it’s not too bad a feeling.

It was on the way down that I started to encounter the foolish and the ill prepared. Four lads, only a minute from the summit, asking me where Pen y Fan was. One of them was wearing jeans. They were soaked and I know they were cold, and they wouldn’t dry out. Further down the path by Corn Du another pair of walkers who didn’t know where they were. Then my warning, with which I started this post, to the guy who for no apparent reason, struck off the path heading up towards Corn Du and a sheer rock face that he wouldn’t be able to scale. And he had a dog with him. Finally, another four lads, all in jeans, who turned back shortly after I met them, and passed me going down again.

Heading down the main path was easy at first, once I’d found place to turn down. I’ve missed that spot in far better visibility than today so I was prepared in case I got lost. I’d checked the distance from there to the summit and calculated the distance reading that I’d see when I got back. In the event, I didn’t need it as I recognised a few other landmarks. The snow was deep enough that I could descend quite quickly with fear of slipping but as we got lower and the snow thinned it became much more treacherous underfoot. Even Rufus was experiencing four paw slips and slides.

Then we started coming across a whole new set of people coming up. Just like there is a snow line, so there is a line below which the people you encounter are predominantly casual walkers out for a stroll. There are several ways to spot them. The lack of back packs or any proper walking kit, the ‘sprint-rest-spring-rest’ way they go rather than the slow but steady gait of the experienced walker. But the thing that annoys me the most is the manners. In my experience, a cheery ‘morning’ will always get some kind of response from a fellow walker. It usually results in a chat about conditions, previous hills and how much better it is to be on a windswept mountain in a hail storm than shopping. But the casual walker rarely responds, and if they do it is normally little more than a grunt.

I tested it today and greeted everyone I met with ‘morning’. At the top of the hill, in the worst conditions, we had several conversations and Rufus had a lot of attention. But as the snow thinned and the morning wore on, the responses got less and less until last last few, who didn’t even acknowledge my existence. But many of the people I came across below the snow line were wearing jeans, light macs and trainers. I only hope they would have the sense to turn back when the going got difficult.

We reached the car just over 2hrs after we left it. We got home around 45 minutes later and the snoring began some 10 minutes after that.

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Seeking the snow

After yesterday’s cultural extravaganza, today was back to normal for a weekend. A short lie in, swift breakfast and a quick drive up to the mountains, which were still snow covered. We went back to Garreg Lwyd.

Last week, the deep snow and bitterly cold wind cut short our wanderings. This morning, despite much of the snow still lying on the ground, the weather was much better. For a start, the bitter wind was a mild breeze, and the sun was warmer. On closer inspection, there was less snow, too.

We set off on a much clearer path. The frozen snow crunched beneath my feet but once again Rufus was able to trip lightly on the frozen crust. He edged ahead of me and as I huffed and puffed up the slope, he darted here and there as if to highlight his superior energy levels.

As we got higher up, so the covering of snow thickened until we were walking over the broken rocks and boulders that normally create problems when trying to pick a way through them. And then we were on the flat summit with the cairns ahead.

By now, the sun was quite warm and I regretted my choice of insulated jacket. I noticed that Rufus, even with his shorter hair, was starting to feel the effects of the sun and for the first time in ages, he drank when I offered him water. At the cairns, we paused for a break and to enjoy being on a mountain. So often, I tend to head to a summit only to head back down again and there sometimes isn’t an opportunity to just enjoy. Today, it was lovely on Garreg Lwyd and I took the time to appreciate the views.

It was clear at the top, and to the south I could see the wind farm we often visit. In the little valleys beyond, there was the remains of a morning mist lingering. To the north, the Carmarthen Fans were white and very mountain-like, while to the west I could just make out the white tops of the Preseli mountains. To complete the panorama, in the east Pen y Fan and Corn Du stood out against the horizon. We’ve climbed them all.

Off we went down into the valley between Garreg Lwyd and Foel Fraith. The path was indistinct at first and it was a case of trying to pick a route between the bigger boulders, and hoping the snow wasn’t too deep. Of course, in places it was and several times I sank up to my knee as the top crust gave way. Once again, Rufus sprang daintily from snow drift to snow drift and hardly noticed the tough going I was experiencing.

The walk to Foel Fraith isn’t my favourite part of this route. It’s long and usually boring, although today the snow gave it more of an interesting feel. The frozen marsh and streams were most welcome, as wet boots are another pet hate of mine. Soon we were climbing up to the top of Foel Fraith and the Carmarthen Fans came into view again. I’ve noticed that in previous blogs I’ve spoken about continuing the walk on the Picws Du – something I was thinking this morning. I have yet to do it, though, and it would more than double the route length.

We stopped on Foel Fraith and after I’d taken some photographs and Rufus had eaten some snacks, I threw snowballs for him. He seemed to have learned that they are cold, because he didn’t make an effort to catch them as he normally does. Instead he sprinted over to where they fell, took a few sniffs to make sure they were the right blobs of snow, and then watched me eagerly for the next one. All the while, he was keen to show me how much more fit he was than me.

Then it was time to turn around and we retraced our steps back to the top of Garreg Lwyd before detouring across the summit towards the quarry. We made our way down the steep slope and into the little dips and cuttings where, in the past, limestone was taken to be used on farms and in industry. Given the conditions, even today, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to work here every day.

We finally reached the car about two and a half hours after we set off, feeling energised and exercised.

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