Excerpt from the new book about visiting Poland and The Baltics.

The city of Torun lies on the Vistula River in northern Poland. The Old Town sustained little damage during World War II and is almost all original. The city was the birthplace of the great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, the first man in modern times to formulate the model of a heliocentric universe, presented in his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), published just before his death in 1543. 

I travelled to Torun on the train from Gdansk. The station is on the opposite side of the river from the town. I turned right out of the station and followed the tree-lined footpath by the road until I saw the bridge heading over the Vistula with the old town nestled within its own walls to the right. The hotel Petite Fleur was easy to find and close to the main square. This hotel has a fabulous breakfast buffet – salmon, rollmop herring, real cheeses, fruit, yoghourt, cereal, eggs, jams, preserves, honey – and I didn’t need any lunch. 

Torun came under the influence of the Teutonic knights in 1233. They built the walls and the castle. The port flourished to the extent that Torun joined the Hanseatic League in the 1280s. The Thirteen Years War was concluded by the Treaty of Torun which returned large parts of the country to Poland in 1466. 300 years of prosperity ended with the wars with Sweden and Torun became part of Prussia in 1793 and then part of Germany until 1920 when at last Torun became part of Poland again. 

I liked the statues in Torun. There’s one of a bronze donkey on the Rynek, which is very popular with the people passing through the area and the statue is well polished as a result of constant contact with visitor’s clothes. The donkey affords good views of the statue of Copernicus and the Town Hall. What people perhaps don’t appreciate is the sinister history of the donkey, which replaced a wooden one that people were tied to in the Middle Ages to be flogged as punishment for misdemeanours. 

Also on Rynek is the frog fountain paying homage to a Pied Piper type story. The frogs are all looking at a young man called Janko Muzykant playing a fiddle. The tale is that a witch once came to Torun and was not welcomed in a nice enough way, so she inflicted a plague of frogs of biblical proportions on the town. The mayor offered a bag of gold and the hand of his daughter in marriage to the first person who could rid his town of the frogs. 

A peasant boy came forward and played such a mellifluous tune on his fiddle that the frogs were enchanted following him as he headed into the woods, thus saving the town. What is interesting is how this fountain and the folk story have been interwoven with a novella Janko Muzykant by Polish writer and winner of 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature, Henryk Sienkiewicz, first published in the Kurier Warszawski in 1879. 

This story focuses on the unfair treatment of a child, Janko, a peasant child, who becomes fascinated by the sounds of fiddles from a nearby manor house. He tries to sneak into the manor to touch them, but he is captured, sentenced to a whipping and dies from his injuries. This rather sad story of a peasant boy dying from a thrashing imposed by the authorities contrasts sharply with the hero of the folktale who becomes the saviour of a whole town. 

On the northern side of the main square at ul Chelminska there’s a statue of the comic-strip dog Filuś with his owner Professor Filutek’s umbrella leaning against a lamppost. This comic strip was created by Zbigniew Lengren a Polish cartoonist and illustrator. He was awarded the “Order of Smile” an international award given by children to adults distinguished in their love, care, and aid for children. The idea of the Order of the Smile was established in 1968 by the Polish magazine Kurier Polski. In 1979 the Secretary-General of the United Nations Kurt Waldheim officially recognized the Order of the Smile as an international ‘order’. You will not be too surprised to read that JK Rowling has also been recognised by the Order of Smile.

Professor Filutek was Lengren’s most famous creation. The professor appeared once a week on the last page of Przekrój magazine, together with his dog Filuś, for over 50 years, a record run in Polish comics. Lengren was a Fine Arts student of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, which is why I believe the charming Filuś statue is found in the town.

Heading due north be sure not to miss the light-green Explorer’s House dedicated to the travels of Tony Halik including the suitcases and bags he took on his rambles around the world and some of the items he brought back, not all of which belonged to him. Other Polish explorers are covered too as well as some famous international explorers of previous centuries. Halik died in 1998 and his wife, Elżbieta Dzikowska, continued the family tradition of visiting various parts of the planet. Further along this same road are some brick buildings of the Copernicus University of Torun. 

To the north of the medieval town is the Ethnographic Museum with its enthusiastic guides who were able to answer all my questions in English. The exhibits range from a roadside shrine of St John Nepomuk, to farm houses, peat coal presses, houseboats, ovens, and shepherd shelters. There is a complete watermill and windmill. This is a peaceful place where the birds tweet in the trees casting dappled light onto most of the buildings. 

Torun is known throughout Poland as the place to buy gingerbread. Just to prove the importance of the sweet in the city, there are two museums dedicated to the stuff both of them in former gingerbread factories. The museum in the town is part of the Torun Regional Museums system whereas the other is a more commercial affair. I can also recommend the gingerbread beer brewed on the premises at Jan Olbracht.

The other highlights of Torun include the museum to Copernicus in the house where he might have been born, depending on whom you believe. There are some eclectic Oriental artefacts in the House under the Star on the main square. Slightly to the east of the medieval town is the castle of the Teutonic Knights, which was dismantled by the town’s people in 1454 presumably when the knights were away otherwise surely they would have decided to stop them? I would recommend visitors spend time admiring the Cathedral of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. The clock on the south side has a big dent above the VIII caused by a Swedish cannonball in 1703. Inside the soaring arches are truly impressive as is the monochrome decoration. 

Arnol Blackhouse

Excerpt from the book Travels through History : Northern Ireland and Scotland  Belfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet. In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by a respected travel company, Rough Guides

The small village of Arnol lies on the north-western coast side of the main A858 on the island of Lewis and Harris. At the far end of the village is the Blackhouse Museum, an unmissable visit for anyone interested in how some people used to live in this part of world up until 50 years ago and, as such, it’s more a time capsule than a museum.

Built in 1885, this traditional blackhouse – a combined byre, barn and home – was inhabited until 1964 and has not been changed since the last inhabitant moved out. The museum staff rekindle the central peat fire every morning so visitors can experience the distinctive peat smell in the interior, which I first became aware of about three steps before entering the building. There’s no chimney, and the smoke finds its own way out through the turf roof, windows, door and attached to the outer garments of any visitors.

All homes built in Arnol up to 1900 were blackhouses. These double-walled dwellings were simply called taighean (‘houses’). But new health regulations introduced around this time, required the complete separation of byre and dwelling by a wall, with no internal communication, which was not the case with the blackhouses such as those at Arnol. Therefore, a new type of house appeared, built with single-thickness walls cemented with lime mortar. It presented such a contrast that people coined the term taigh-geal ‘white house’. The term taigh-dubh ‘black house’ was then applied to the old houses retrospectively.

Titanic Belfast

Excerpt from the book Travels through History : Northern Ireland and Scotland  Belfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet. In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by a respected travel company, Rough Guides.

Titanic Belfast stands 126 feet high, the same height as Titanic’s hull. The interior of the eight-storey building provides 130,000 square feet of space. Its centrepiece is a series of interpretive galleries exploring aspects of the building, design, sinking and legacy of Titanic. On the top floor of the museum is Belfast’s largest conference and reception space, the Titanic Suite, a banqueting facility capable of seating 750 people. A reproduction of the original staircase on the Titanic, made famous by the James Cameron film Titanic in 1997, is located in this conference centre. The construction of the building cost £77 million with an additional £24 million spent on pre-planning and public realm enhancements.

Once inside, the visitors all go the same way, through the various galleries that first provide the background of Belfast the city at the time Titanic was constructed, followed by the various phases of the Titanic’s life, starting with the construction of the vessel, the launch, the fit-out, the maiden voyage, the sinking, and then the aftermath.

The first gallery recreates scenes from Belfast at the time of Titanic’s construction in 1909–11. It illustrates the city’s major industries, including amazing statistics about linen. In 1825, James Kay of Preston in Lancashire invented a method of “wet spinning” which passed the flax through warm water and enabled a much finer yarn to be spun. By the late 1820s several “wet” spinning mills using water-power had been built in Ulster. By 1850 there were 62 mills in the region, employing 19,000 workers and by 1871 there were 78 mills with a workforce of 43,000. People flocked into Belfast to work in the new spinning mills. Belfast more than quadrupled in size between 1841 and 1901. It’s easy to see why Belfast was known as ‘Linenopolis’ during this time.

Northern Ireland and Scotland

My new book is called: Travels through History – Northern Ireland and Scotland 

Belfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet.

Lonely Planet praised its “timeless beauty and high-grade distractions – golf, whiskey and some of the world’s most famous rocks. The region may be famous for Game of Thrones but its many scenic filming locations are just the start.”

In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by readers of the respected Rough Guides.

This book is short and provides a brief history of Northern Ireland and Scotland, ideal for dipping into during your busy life.



The Giant’s Causeway

Excerpt from the book Travels through History : Northern Ireland and Scotland  Belfast and the Causeway Coast has been rated best region in the world to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet. In September 2017, Scotland was voted the most beautiful country in the world by a respected travel company, Rough Guides

In 1693 the wider world first became aware of The Giant’s Causeway when Sir Richard Bulkeley, a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, presented a paper on this unique geographical feature to The Royal Society. Even then, it was four years before an artist was sent to the area to provide evidence of this ‘curiosity’ on the north-east tip of Ireland.

It may seem remarkable to visitors such as myself that there were people in the late 1690s who put forward an argument that The Causeway had been created either by men with chisels and picks or by the efforts of a long-dead giant. When I looked at the Giant’s Causeway I had seen many pictures of it before, so it was completely new yet somewhat familiar, but in the 17th Century nothing like it had been seen before. Therefore, the visitor’s imagination could run wild.

In 1740 another artist, Miss Susanna Drury, popularised the Giant’s Causeway for the first time. Her views of the area are landmarks both in Irish topographical painting and in European scientific illustration. The groups of fashionably-dressed figures in Susanna Drury’s paintings show that, even in 1740, the Giant’s Causeway had become a tourist attraction. Soon it became part of The Grand Tour amongst the social elites of the time and its popularity began to increase, a trend that has continued to this day. Even though there were many visitors to the Giant’s Causeway in the period 1740 – 1770, no one could conclusively prove how the feature was created. Then in 1771, a Frenchman by the name of Demarest, announced the origin of the causeway was because of volcanic action.

Travel Poetry – 2

Travel poem number 2 about Istanbul.

I depart the shiny new tram

taste sage tea hundreds of years in the making

consumed near a Muslim graveyard,

where I espied silhouettes of crescent moons, stars

under pitch black skies.

As I dodge mutant dancing zebras,

vehicles screech to halt at the light.

Garish clothes, piled on the pavement, are sorted

by six grey men, women

the smiling trader haggles with all.

My linen shirt feels clammy, I sniff fresh orange juice.

Men rock on wooden chairs, debate

unending traffic above on the concrete flyover.

Scrawny cats wail, hiss over a discarded kebab

A welcoming dolmus awaits travellers to distant destinations.


How to book and travel by high-speed train around China

China’s rail network is a fast-paced wonder that makes exploring this huge country – including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen – much easier