Hiking in Gorce National Park

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A few weeks ago, Lucy and I spent the weekend at a friend’s house on the edge of Gorce National Park, close to the Tatry Mountains in the south of Poland. The plan was to hike for two days in the high Tatry without the kids and learn some snow-trekking skills, taking advantage of the time of year. However, our mentor friend was sick that weekend, so we left him to suffer in silence at home, packed our day packs and hiked amongst the lower hills of Gorce – husband and wife spending some quality alone time. All very beautiful scenery and enough snow to make the hiking a new experience without getting into too much difficulty. Above: stunning views from many of the trails across the valley onto the snow-capped Tatry range.

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We had bought walking sticks with us, but managed to leave them in the car at our friend’s house. Usually we don’t use them so we didn’t think, but on this occasion given the slippery, steep paths, they would have been a useful accessory. 1st lesson learned.

The temperature hung around zero degrees for most of the day which was ideal. Bright sunshine meant that sunglasses were required and the surrounding landscape shone with glittering ice crystals, reflecting the light off the mounds of snow either side of the path. It’s easy to keep spirits high on a day like this. Talking of spirits, my hip flask filled with homemade wisniówka also helped us to keep warm… not that we needed it climbing the hills!

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Someway up the mountain, we found ourselves on an old border line. Poland has historical been carved up by surrounding nations for centuries, and in 1769, Austria annexed a small part of Spisz, including the area around Nowy Targ and Nowy Sącz. The park authorities erected this small signboard above to identify where the border used to lie. History that is hard to comprehend.

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Local foresters move around these trails with horse and sledge. We met man and beast heading up the trail towards us on their way to the village. The worn and discoloured leather straps around the horse show the aged nature of the equipment. A far and welcome cry from the traffic of Warsaw. A much more tranquil method of transportation.

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The coniferous landscape allows colour to remain all year round and birds could be heard in the tree tops. Visitor signboards state bears and wolves roam these lands, but are notoriously elusive and shy, avoiding humans at all costs.

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Finally we reached the PTTK shelter near the top of Turbacz, the highest mountain in the Gorce range at 1310m. The shelter has been here since 1958 and sleeps 100 people. We had soup and admired the crowds of people that had arrived by cross-country ski or running shoe. Our hiking boots seemed a little overkill! The surrounding views were stunning and other than losing the path on the way down, we thoroughly enjoyed our 8-hour hike. We will return here in the summer, but hopefully next time head over the valley to the larger hills!

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Kampinos Half-Marathon

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This was to be the culmination of months of running and weeks of ‘long-runs’ through the forest. Having completed several 10k’s and watched people run the Orlen Marathon in Warsaw, running on the road has no appeal. So we chose the 21km half-marathon through Kampinos National Park to the north of Warsaw. The forest is huge, covering over 400 sq km… so big in fact that only this month they discovered that wolves are living in the forest – up until now they had no idea! We have seen Elk in the forest before during one of our walks, but nothing else.

The route began near Dziekanów Leśny and wove a big circle back to the start line. Around 400 people joined the race which was plenty given the narrow path in places. Combined with the torrential rain and cold, it proved for an interesting experience!

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The human brain is a complex and weird machine. At the start of the race, the prospect of running 21km for the first time was daunting, especially when surrounded by men and women with bulging leg muscles and kitted out far beyond our measly bottle of water and backpack. Admittedly we were overtaken quite a lot at the beginning, but this is when those that are used to this distance get out in front so they can pace themselves correctly. Our aim was to finish and to finish together… and try to enjoy the atmosphere in the forest. Once our bodies had accepted that 21k was the target, we both breezed past the 10km mark, noticed the 15km point and were soon at 18km and the final stretch home. We were both feeling pretty ok up until then, but I started to flag slightly just before the end. Was I really tired? Or was my brain telling me that I had nearly finished. I get the same feeling at the 9km mark on a 10km run. Nothing to do with my physical tiredness then…all in the mind!

Although we were soaked to the skin before the start, once we got moving and our muscles warmed up, we dismissed the wet and enjoyed the smell of the damp Autumn around us as we moved. We ran on a mixture of wet leaves, soggy sand and well trodden trails, albeit increasingly waterlogged as the morning progressed. The rain did not let off once and continued a heavy downpour throughout.

We attempted to sprint the last few metres, but any increase in speed was probably totally imagined! As soon as we crossed the line and stopped, the freezing cold hit our cores, sending us instantly into shivers. With no towels at hand, we grabbed our medals and jogged to the car where we dried off with the heater on full blast. A short drive to a friend’s house for a warm shower and I got dropped off in Warsaw for a head-wetting evening. It took me at least 4 hours to fully warm up again. This was probably the final straw in what was a tiring week – the next 10 days were spent in bed with a throat virus and fever! Still, mission accomplished for 2015 and around 3,000 PLN raised for charity! Next year we train for the Kampinos 42k…

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In Training….

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My 3rd Run Warsaw since moving to Poland and I found myself going solo again. It gave me time to absorb the atmosphere and enjoy the spectacle of so many orange shirts. The only time this happens anywhere else is when Holland gets through to the final of the World Cup…or perhaps once a year at La Tomatina in Spain!

I have been running regularly recently, although my diet has not been perfect (consisting of a KFC and wine gums with the boys the night before – not ideal running fodder!). Today was also very warm at around +23C. The run took the usual route through the city and the tarmac soon heated up, creating an airless atmosphere for the runners.

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I ran well and have learnt not to gulp down the mineral rich water at the halfway point which always gives me instantaneous stitch. I splashed it over my head, took a small mouthful and threw the rest away. The worst parts for me are the long straights, in this case Marszałkowska and Czerniakowska. I find them boring and uninteresting which affects my motivation. It’s also probably because I know the city well now and the scenery is no surprise. Still, the roadside bands that turned out to cheer us past with raucous drumming helped.

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I attempted to ‘sprint’ the last km, but looking at my split chart after the race, I had obviously lost all concept of speed! This was my slowest km during the whole race, and yet I felt I ran it the quickest. Delusion and dehydration no doubt. I crossed the line with a feeling of elation. Running is a strange hobby – tiredness, exhaustion and demotivation set in at various points during the race, but the adrenaline rush when you cross the line is well worth it. I finished the race in 00:52:58, a 10km PB for me. Very happy with the result!

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As I was on my home and in no rush,I hung around at the finish line, enjoying the elation and relief of the other runners as they completed their own personal challenges. Loads of support from the roadside and kids cheering as we ran past – and with approx. 10,500 people in the race, there was alot of cheering needed….

A slow walk back to the car through Łazienki Park and home to a well-deserved glass of wine and a relaxing afternoon in the garden. Good training for the half-marathon in two weeks time.

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Krynica – Hiking / Festiwal Biegowy

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Apparently it was snowing in the Tatras this weekend so our plans to spend 4 days hiking were scuppered somewhat. Plunging temperatures to -1C and a total lack of suitable gear meant that alternative plans were needed. A few Skype calls with our friends and we chose a hotel in Krynica which happened to look quite lively with the Annual Krynica Economic Forum happening in town, followed by the Festiwal Biegowy.

After an early morning drive of around 6,5 hours, we checked in and hit the heart of Krynica…at this point still full of currency traders and government executives poncing around in suits. I can get away with saying this as I too ponce around in a suit 5 days a week. A quick walk round, a cup of coffee, a check on the book-in times for the organised runs and we went back to the hotel for a swim and a sauna. A hard day so far.

The next day, we rose fairly early, had a good breakfast in the hotel, packed our backpacks and headed up the Jaworzyna-Krynicka cable car to the top of the mountain to start our hike. We chose a circular route of about 15km which provided a few impressive views but nothing too strenuous with regards hiking. A surprising number of people on the trail and a few mountain bikes…a plan for next year perhaps.20150911_142938_HDR

Once we returned after the hike, Lukasz and I drove into town to book us into a coupe of runs. We chose the 22:30pm 5k for myself, Lucy and Lukasz, and the 10k the following morning for all of us. I had not run for a few weeks, Malgosia had a bad knee and Lukasz was more into cycling…it was going to be interesting. Still, we are fit people and intend to stay fit!

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A fresh looking threesome before the 5k

The 5k involved quite a climb in Krynica for about 1 km before pulling a u-ey at the top and dropping back down again. For people who train in the unending flatness of Warsaw, the ‘hilly bits’ proved challenging. Knees, thighs and ankles are not used to this – time to move nearer the mountains? Still, the atmosphere was good, running in the dark through the town centre was fun and everybody was in good spirits. No PBs achieved, but that’s not what it’s all about!

The next morning…

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…all smiles and keen to go. A little stiff, but nothing a good run couldn’t cure! The route started in Krynica and ran down the main road to Muszyna, a formal distance of 10k, although we were cheated a little with the double start line. We all thought the clock had started and ran for over a km, before passing the actual start line where our tags were activated. By which time, I suppose we were well and truly warmed up! Some complaints as most people were prepared for a 10k run, not an 11k run. Nevermind, the route was mainly downhill, so gravity helped push us through the last km.

Lucy and I ran together as we had been running the most, Lukasz followed and Malgosia brought up the rear, taking her time and protecting her knee. The R’s came in around 57 minutes (a personal best for Lucy!), Mr L crossed the line at 1:03 and Miss M at 1:16, hobbling and full of emotion as she crossed the line. Running a 10k after a knee operation 9 months ago was not bad. The happy-to-be-alive and slightly sweaty over-the-line shot…

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Finished by 13:00, back to the hotel and into the pool for a cool down and muscle relaxation sesh in the sauna. We may not have been hiking in the mountains, but it was still a pretty active weekend, finished off by a trip to the Krynica Zdroj well and some water-tasting. The sulphuric smell and strong minerals putting everyone off buying any more than the small taster cup provided! Pretty horrible stuff but probably healthy.

All in all a great weekend and my favourite way of spending time away…a little exercise, offset with time to relax and forget about work. Plus a few medals as mementos…

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Rock climbing in Jura

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Our latest family hobby recently took us south to Jura Krakowsko-Częstochowska, the ‘climbing mecca’ of Poland. A line of limestone rocks stretching between Częstochowa and Kraków ensures there is climbing for all skill levels. Just as well really as this was our first time on the rocks and outside of the Warszawianka indoor climbing wall.

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Our instructor, Stefan, has been climbing most of his life and lives for the passion and competition that climbing attracts. The idea of this weekend was to show us how to secure ourselves with the ropes, tie the right knots and introduce us to the pleasures of outdoor climbing. So far my experience on the indoor wall has been an unnerving mixture of enochlophobia, a belief that I am too old to start climbing at 38 and hours of sweaty anxiety hanging off the grips with arms shaking as people shout instructions at me in a language I don’t altogether understand. Needless to say, my wife ‘gently persuaded’ me to go away this weekend!

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But here’s me on the wall. Relaxed, precariously balanced…and strangely enjoying myself. It turns out that climbing amongst competitive, sweaty, corporate animals after work indoors is not the same as this! Space, fresh air, cool rock, no people, plenty of grips and great views make it a very different climbing experience. One that I soon learned to enjoy. Plus, the only person shouting at me was my instructor (in English) and my wife. We climbed ‘z dołem’ which meant we carried quickdraws on our harnesses and clipped into the metal loops drilled into the rock, followed by our rope. The second person belayed at the bottom, feeding the rope as needed, but always keeping it locked into their harness in case of a fall.

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Stefan took us onto several rock formations, slowly moving up the difficulty levels until we were sufficiently tired and struggling to reach the top. The difficulty of a route can be graded a certain level due to a number of reasons. It might be the first few metres which are difficult, or a tricky overhang to tackle. Small handgrips or awkward feet positioning also affect the grade. Interestingly, Lucy and I found that we encountered different problems on the same route. A part that she found easy, I spent ridiculous amounts of energy trying to tackle, and my longer reach meant that I passed other sections quicker.

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The other main difference was the vista. On an indoor climbing wall, you soon acclimatise to the height and size of the room. On a rock, 15 metres up, with a little wind and when the ground drops away at the base of the rock, the sensation of space is increased significantly. In a good way for me. I particularly enjoyed this part of the climbing.

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The only downside was that my shoes are too large and I think, the wrong shape for my feet. Both of my big toes ended up black and bruised which was quite painful by the end of the weekend. Still, I managed all the routes and although struggled at the end of each day, felt a sense of accomplishment.

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The outcome of the weekend was that I now see why I climb indoors. The wall at Warszawianka seems to be much more difficult and stressful to climb, but I had already learnt enough technique over a few months to enjoy scaling the rocks in Jura. Although not tricky routes, the enjoyment factor was definately present and I realised that I have nothing to prove to anyone. I enjoy running, cycling and varying my fitness too much for climbing to take over my life like many people, but if I can learn enough to be able to enjoy an adventure weekend away with Lucy in stunning surroundings, it’s worth a little anxiety now and again indoors!

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A trip down the Wisła

Warsaw as a capital city has many attractions for its visitors and inhabitants, but it’s river is not known to be one of them. The River Wisła is the largest in Poland and runs for 651 miles from the Western Carpathians in the south to the Baltic Sea in the north, in effect dividing the country in half and running through 11 large cities on its route. Being such a large part of the Polish countryside, you would have thought it would have been utilised to good effect. To date, there are very few places on the side of the river where people can socially congregate or drink beer next to the swirling waters.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to take a boat trip down the river in honour of the opening of a new office building called ‘The Tides’ currently being constructed on the western bank close to the Poniatowskiego Bridge. Following a few cocktails on a barge, we hopped onto a tourist motorboat and headed south towards the site from near Gdanski Bridge in the north. As the light fell, we had time to admire the lights of Warsaw and especially the bridges. The first point of interest was the President’s Palace.

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The river is quite fast flowing and the trip ‘up’ the river took just over 1.5 hours, but gave us plenty of time to take photographs. For these, I used my recently purchased Canon 7D Mark II. The high ISO settings allows excellent picture quality in low light and hand held – even on a boat. Below: Gdański Bridge to the north.

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Irrespective of the strong undercurrents and swirling waters, the feeling and sound of gently chugging up the river was a very enjoyable sensation. The next photo op was the Świętokrzyski Bridge – probably the most recognised of all the bridges in Warsaw.

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As we neared the site, we motored past the Poniatowskiego Bridge and the National Stadium on the east bank. The red and white lights can be programmed to flash in certain sequences and easily recognisable as a landmark.

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Finally we arrived at the site to the deafening sound of the boat’s speaker system playing dramatic music and a huge fireworks display set off from the site – much to the surprise of those quiet bystanders sitting on the side of the river enjoying the peace and quiet! The return journey took around 20 minutes which left just enough time for cake and another glass of champagne.

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Chopok, Slovakia

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For the past few years I have been coming to Chopok in Slovakia for a boys’ snowboarding weekend in March, but this year we had the chance to come as a family via a slight discount through the boy’s karate club. We are staying for a week at the Hotel Repiska, a short drive from the Lúčky lift – the first of three as you drive up the mountain. The hotel is mediocre, the food could be better (no fresh juice in the morning, pretty awful quality meat and the same food every day with little change day-to-day), but the location is impressive. Situated high on the hillside with a snowy drive through the forests to reach it, we have impressive views first thing in the morning. Compared to the Grand Jasna Hotel where I will be staying in March, the cost is half which makes a difference for a family of four. But the pool is very nice and the sauna (although extra at EUR 5 per person per session!) is a welcome facility after a long day on the slopes.

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A room with a view

The bottom ski lift at Lúčky is great for beginners. The first lift is a new chairlift which takes you to the top of one of the best blue slopes on the mountain. The piste is wide and long; perfect for all levels. Over the past few days we have seen the boys’ confidence build with their instructor to the point where we are struggling to keep up with them. Benji has no fear and the biggest problem is speed control – nothing new here then. Yesterday they hit their first red slope. Lucy and I left them at the top and after a quick toilet stop and a drink at the bottom, we headed slightly uphill to wait for them thinking they would be making slow process. As it happened, they had sped past us at some point and jumped back on the lift to the top of the blue slope – so much faster than we thought. As I said – no speed control!

Some photos from the last few days, all taken on my LG G3 phone. The shutter has voice control which has caused much amusement with the boys. Standing on the slope shouting ‘whisky!’ at the camera has attracted some strange looks!

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Snaking after their instructor, Leszek, down the mountain.

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Group photo!

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Mamusia leading the way…

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The enjoyable blue slope to the bottom of the lift

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Sunshine at the top after 3 days of skiing under cloud….

2014 travel summary

When we look back, 2014 was a busy year for us with an unusual amount of travel in and out of Poland. Since we bought the house in 2010, we have realised that the garden and work needed to maintain the ‘grounds’ has kept us occupied most weekends and we have stayed at home, rather than made the effort to see new places. Comfort can be a disadvantage and adventure only begins once you leave your front door.

First trip of the year was Thailand with some friends. A once in a lifetime trip without the children – adults only so that we could spend some serious time hiking in the jungle etc. The almost 3 weeks was packed with travel from one place to another. A stunning country and culture and spending NYE in Chiang Mai was breathtaking. Some highlights:

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King Prawns cooked on the side of the street in Bangkok. Delicious…

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Tuk Tuk – the quickest and most thrilling way to travel around Bangkok. Not the most healthy though!

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Releasing Chinese Lanterns into the sky in Chiang Mai on NYE. Thousands filled the air above the city – an amazing and unique sight.

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Prepared for our 3-day hike in the jungles above Chiang Mai. Giant spiders, waterfalls, snakes and endless jungle vistas – we saw them all.

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Early morning village wildlife in the jungle.

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Our jungle cook smoking Banana Tobacco – readily available here. The ‘Rat Stew’ he prepared was not as popular as he thought it would be…

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Beautiful sandy beaches, beach barbecues, coral reef snorkelling, fresh seafood and hikes in the hills – a mix of everything on Kao Tao.

 

These are a selection of many photos taken. We took cookery classes, hired mopeds in the mountains, hiked in the jungle and spent a few days snorkelling watching colourful parrot fish, small octopus and and long, strange pipefish. A truly remarkable place with friendly people, unfortunately scarred by the tragic events last year on the party beaches of Kao Tao. We stayed away from the half-moon parties and kept to the quieter parts of the island. The heat was wonderful and a perfect way to break up the Polish winter.

A few months later in April, we drove to the south of France to meet my family for a few weeks at the house. A time for construction and teamwork in the rain, rather than relaxation and warmth! We did get a few days sunshine – this is one of my favourite photos, Lucy sunbathing in the south of France in her wellies!

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Other than this, it was all hands to work building walls…

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A long term project to say the least! But spending time down there in the quiet French countryside is always fun. The fresh baguettes, local wine and variety of cheeses an added benefit…

In the summer, we headed to England for two weeks which was well documented here. More quality time with the kids hiking in the Yorkshire hills. The weather was perfect and the crisp air of the British countryside is hard to beat. An ideal opportunity for the kids to speak English to everyone around them – it’s surprising how much they can when they choose to!

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And of course a few weekends away in Poland – the first to the Beskidy Hills to spend a couple of days walking. The old fashion method of harvesting can still be seen here with the hay forked onto wooden spindles and left to dry. None of the huge bailing machines to be seen. The fields aren’t big enough to justify the expense and the farmers just don’t have the money. All done by the family, by hand.

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“The path is here somewhere, I know it!”

The second was our weekend to Babia Góra National Park with a group of friends. More hiking in the hills with an overnight stop in a shelter on the mountainside. An evening of singing with a guitar and playing board games with the kids. Very enjoyable even though we didn’t make it to the summit. Just as well as those that did told us that it was zero visibility and snow everywhere, even in September.

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The aim is to keep the boys interested in seeing new places and spending time with good friends. Sitting at home, the computer or the telly beckons and the kids zombie out for more than a few hours. Not good for them and they are learning zilch. I’m not sure 2015 will have the same variety, but I think it will be as interesting as there are several places in Poland on the must-see list. Some we have visited sometime ago and would like to revisit, Białowieża National Park for instance.

I also need more excuses to get my camera out and shoot something new which is getting harder the more places we visit. My wife knows Poland so it is her challenge for this year. I hear a few days around Pilsko in the Beskidy Hills plus a a week around the Tatras is already being planned…

The Essence of France

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Deep in the heart of the Dordogne region of France is a little stone cottage with an inconspicuous wooden door facing the busy N21 between Bergerac and Perigueux. Small, indiscreet signage labels this hut as the ‘Chateau La Vieille Bergerie’. When open for business, the proprietor, a genial, English-speaking Frenchman is clearly proud to show you his small, well stocked storeroom hidden in the rocky hillside housing several large casks of aging wines.

Only 75,000 bottles are produced here per year and sold in 4 varieties: a Bergerac Dry, a Rosé Bergerac, a Red Bergerac and a Monbazillac. Having spent time picking grapes in Californian vineyards, the owner understands the care needed and the intricacies of picking the fruit at the right time of year to produce a specific wine. His passion is clear in the description of each glass of wine held up to the light.

We are not connoisseurs, but enjoy a glass of red now and then with our meal once the kids are in bed. Perhaps because we took the ‘taste test’ and know a little about this region, this is one of our favourite wines. We bought a couple of crates and hauled them across land back to Warsaw in the packed boot of our car, which perhaps adds to the enjoyment of every sip. The quality evident in the absence of any heady aromas and clear, smooth texture.

We are both fans of wine from the Rioja region of northern Spain, and have toured the Marlborough vineyard in New Zealand, but the wine from Chateau La Vielle is still by far the best….especially enjoyed with some local ‘Confit de Canard’.

This was our last bottle and we enjoyed every moment of it.

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