Saturday 28 May 2011

Poland 2: Silesian Curios

I've moved on from Kraków in this year's Lonely Planet assignment, and am now exploring the towns and cities of Śląsk (pronounced shlonsk)... or as it's better known in English, Silesia.

I've been doing what I call 'hubbing', that is I base myself in a larger city and do day trips by train or bus to each place I have to check out. It's a good way of working, as I can get straight into the research at each place, unencumbered by luggage.

The towns of Silesia have much to recommend them. Typically they're very walkable, based on an old rynek (market square) around which are arrayed a town hall and attractive old buildings. Somewere nearby will be lurking a castle, or at least the ruins of one.

And if I get to use the sentence "Jak dojść do zamku?" ("How do I get to the castle?") at least once in each town, I award myself bonus points.

Here are some of the quirkier items of interest, snapped in my Silesian travels so far...

1. As an exception to the pretty small village motif, I couldn't resist taking a photo of the communist-era Hotel Katowice (even the tram here is in sympathy with the period). Katowice is a major industrial centre and much of its architecture dates from the 1920s and beyond, so it's an interesting mish-mash of styles:

2. I spotted this little guy on the window of a bakery in attractive Pszczyna (pronounced pshchina - try saying that five times quickly). Żuczek means beetle, and there's possibly an interesting folk tale about him, but I haven't been able to discover anything further. Polish readers, can you shed any light?

3. The name of this Pszczyna street says it all; strażacka means 'firemen':

4. I like the simplicity of this shot in the side streets of Opole. A lot of clothing shops in the UK sell second-hand items from the UK, so this could be one of them:

5. Here's a wild hairdressers' sign from Opole. A unique style awaits within:

6. And finally, the market square in tiny Toszek. They haven't taken down the Easter decorations yet, as you can see:

Saturday 21 May 2011

Poland 1: Signs of Kraków

It's the end of my first week in Kraków, Poland. As always at this point in these trips, I'm missing home a little, but also being pleasantly reminded of how beautiful this city is.

I don't take many photos on these trips, especially when in a city I've visited before, but I do have a few from this week that I'd like to share with you. They're of signs - more or less - which have caught me eye over the past few days...

1. I really like the look of this cafe-bookshop's sign. This sort of signage is something the Poles do very well; rather than a garish commercial logo, it's a tasteful compromise between a classic look and modernity, fitting in neatly with the city's centuries-old streetscape. There's even a hint of the art nouveau in there, I think:

2. This faded old sign on a wall in the Old Town caught my eye. I imagine it must predate the communist era, and as far as I can work out it says "Entry to dairy". Of which there is now none nearby.

3. Not exactly a sign, but here's a glass of Żywiec beer next to a bunch of flowers at the Irish cafe-bar Nic Nowego (which means "nothing new"). Those cavorting peasants on the logo must have got that way by drinking the product, one presumes:

4. The former Jewish district of Kazimierz was devastated by the Nazi regime's genocidal program in World War II, but in recent years the eastern part of the district has seen a revival of Jewish traditions and motifs. This is the sign above a bar in the quarter, in a building which was once a shop:

5. Finally, here's a large diagram of a herring, its parts labelled, on the wall of a bar which serves "Polish tapas". Well that's what the menu says. They're snack-sized dishes composed of Polish foodstuffs such as śledź (herring), kiełbasa (sausage) and golonka (pork knuckle). They go well with a vodka!

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Saturday 14 May 2011

Belfast Reborn

I've just spent three days in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. Of course we've all heard of Belfast, and for all the wrong reasons - for decades it was in the news as a result of its sectarian violence, euphemistically known as "The Troubles".

However, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 put an end to that, and every year of normality since has seen Belfast mature into an attractive small city with some lively nightlife. It's also enabled the city to rediscover its 19th century heritage as a mighty industrial hub.

Here's a few random snapshots which I took of Belfast over my brief stay.

The first pic is the lunch I had on my first day there, in a great old-fashioned pub called Bittle's. On the plate are pork and leek sausages, and "champ" - mashed potato with spring onion. Not only was this a good filling lunch, I saw it on a few other menus over my stay. In fact I started to think of it as the signature dish of Northern Ireland. Went well with a Guinness too.

The Cathedral Quarter of Belfast is threaded by a series of alleyways, for some reason known as "entries". They're atmospheric narrow laneways, often housing classic old pubs. Here's the entry to Pottinger's Entry, named after local lad Sir Henry Pottinger, the first Governor of Hong Kong:

Does the below clock tower look as though it's leaning? Indeed it is. The Albert Memorial Clock was built above the subterranean course of the River Farset, and unfortunately the damp reclaimed ground shifted over time. Incidentally, Belfast took its name from the Farset, being situated on béal feirste, literally the mouth of the Farset in Gaelic...

Having been a busy industrial city in the 19th century, Belfast has many solid commercial buildings near its waterfront. Here's some elaborate decoration on the side of a former seed warehouse that's now the Malmaison Hotel:

To learn more about The Troubles, I took a black cab tour of the remaining sectarian murals and other reminders of the conflict. One of the most moving was the Peace Wall that separated Protestant and Catholic communities, covered with graffiti by visitors from around the world:

Another memorable element of Belfast's past was the SS Titanic, which was built and launched here a century ago. Here are the remains of the slipways down which Titanic and its predecessor Olympic entered the water for the first time:

And here are some pieces from a Titanic chess set, made to order by the creative types at local gallery Open Window Productions:

And finally, the Big Fish sculpture on Belfast's regenerated waterfront. Covered with tiles bearing images of the city's history, it also marked the return of salmon to the adjacent Lagan River after over a century of industrial waste was cleaned up. It's a fitting symbol for a city that's been reborn in more ways than one...

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland and Aer Lingus.

Thursday 5 May 2011

Distilling the Spirit of Toronto

Eight months ago on my visit to Toronto, Canada, I had a Monday afternoon free and wandered down to the Distillery District.

This remarkable area was once the sprawling factory complex of Gooderham & Worts, and was reputedly the largest alcoholic distillery in the world at its 19th century zenith. Located next to railways, a river and the Great Lakes, it did a roaring trade during Prohibition in the 1920s in the right-next-door USA.

The distillery closed in 1990, later undergoing conversion into a cool urban district of arts venues and restaurants. Here's a look at how the towering industrial architecture gives the place an attractive rough-edged appearance:

It seemed more or less car-free, which was a nice surprise in a North American city. I saw a group go by on a tour taken via Segway, the curious one-person transporter which never looks quite right on either road or footpath. Plenty of room for them on a quiet Monday, of course. And here's a guy on a bike:

Here's where I had lunch, at the Mill Street Brewery pub where the microbrewery made all its beer from 2002 to 2006:

Wandering around after lunch, I found some interesting outlets and design elements. Here's an intriguing device within a chocolatier's:

And here are some funky mask-shaped chairs outside a bar:

Finally, a look at the enormous distillery-themed piece of street art in the centre of the complex. It's unnecessarily overdoing things - the industrial architecture all around it is the really impressive big-ticket item - but it is interesting to look at and walk beneath:


Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.