The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

The Museum of MoonshinePosted on 30th July, 2010.

There, in the corner of the field, is a caravan with two pink plastic chairs outside and a sign which reads, Protected Object (guarded by security). It’s not referring to the caravan, which is modern and of modest proportions. It’s referring to what lies in the trees beyond. The field is at the far end of the Skansen, an open air museum outside of Białystok.

We have dutifully walked around the whole site, peered in every corner, stepped into the traditional villagers house, looked at the remarkable collection of wooden decorative carvings that adorned the gables of the roof, asked questions about beekeeping, looked carefully at the schoolbooks with Comrade Stalin promoting the joys of study and literacy, admired the windmill – all with a tingle of delayed gratification.

This is what we have really come to see, in that copse over there. We openly admit it and it’s attracted a few other curious people too. But we’re patient, and we go round everything else first. This museum has been open over 25 years. It has a range of original wooden buildings from all over the region. These are not reconstructions, they have been dismantled and brought here and carefully put back together again.

There’s a house of the gentry, then a peasant home. There’s a storeroom, a room for men, a room for women, and a communal space. In another, here Grandma slept above the oven. They house various ethnographical collections relating to farming, blacksmithing, carpentry, household appliances, folk pottery, textiles and costumes. Some of the buildings are still in pieces on the ground, awaiting better times. In other houses, people live. Elsewhere, there is a graveyard. The curator explains, The graves are reconstructed but there are no bodies here. This is the only part which is not real. They are to give the impression of what it was.

A press article has brought us here, which told a curious story of the latest addition to the museum. It may as well been entitled, If you go down to the woods today, you’ll be sure of a big surprise. In this copse, on the other side of the field, there is a reconstructed bimber factory. The curator explains to us that each of these tanks here can hold 150 litres of homemade vodka. They were uncovered in a local forest and confiscated by the county authorities. The culprits were given a 2 year suspended sentence and a huge fine, which they were able to pay off relatively quickly.  The Museum made a request to the court that they take the equipment off the court’s hands and restore it, as an example of local folk culture. The court agreed. The culprits even came by to ensure that it was reconstructed in the correct manner, adding personal touches such as the metal cup hanging on a hook for tasting. They were not too bothered by the loss of their equipment. They reportedly said,  No problem, we have new stuff, each tank can do 250 litres now.

On the way there and on the way backPosted on 27th July, 2010.


Warning: the word ‘traditional’ may be overused in this post.

On a long road trip it is necessary to stop off at some roadside tavern. This is not Route 66 and we aren’t looking for a Tex-Mex place on the outskirts of Albuquerque. It’s not some god-forsaken truck stop in the middle of the Nevada desert which sells t-shirts and gives you food-poisoning. It’s dusty and hot but not that kind of landscape. We’ve taken a slight detour, west of Białystok, off the 671 to Kiermusy, where we find an old Polish Manor House called Dworek nad łąkami/Manor House in the Meadows. It’s a convincing recreation that Disney Imagineers would love to deconstruct and reconstruct. There are other traditional buildings remade here – Karczma Rzym/Rome Inn, Czworaki Dworskie/Manor Court, and Jantarowy Kasztel/Jantarowy chateau. Here visitors may spend a night in the Royal Chamber, Russian Room or Jewish Suite and ‘find relaxation in the Rasputin’s Steam Bath’. Whatever your choice, the web site promises that ‘fatigued guests can find a bit of relax with music near the fireplace in the living room’.

From the bright afternoon sun, we pass through the doors of Rome Inn into a dark cavernous interior and what looks like an old dusty wooden feasting hall. (I don’t think Disney would do the dust). We find a table by a small window and near to a huge bison head mounted on the wall. We are near to the home of Żubrówka vodka after all. The bison is wearing a crown. Underneath it are various small wooden sculptures, of gnomes, kings and warrior chieftains – a kind of shrine to arcadia – and dozens upon dozens burnt down candles, evidence of merriment the night before. The candles are real – I checked.

We are in the land formerly popular with Lithuanian princes, Polish kings and Russian tsars. They enjoyed the hunting and probably the Podlasie cuisine. This hostelry is known for this, meats prepared according to old recipes, bread freshly baked in the oven and locally made Kiermusy liquors, a kind of nalewka.

We start with the traditional non-alcoholic drink Podpiwek, a dark drink made from flour and yeast, with a caramel colour and sweet aroma. It’s a little sour tasting at first. She tells me, This is more in the Russian tradition and in the Ukraine it’s called ‘kvass’. Here the borders these things get mixed up. The name can be translated into English as ‘under-beer’. There is no written menu here. The waiter offers chicken breasts in a sauce with kasza gryczana, a plate of cold meats with slices of fat, with a delicious homemade thick tomato soup to start with. As well as the traditional homemade vodka.

After the meal, I ask where the traditional bathroom is. The waiter says, You go past the bar and into the wardrobe. And indeed you do. Like Narnia, you stoop through the double wardrobe doors and find a fragrant (stuffed with lavender wreathes) pastoral bathroom.

If you were to wish to stay – and many do – there is accommodation on site, including a faux-medieval castle, across wooden walkways through the reed marshes.

Nearby is the village of Tykocin. Before World War II, the village had 5,000 inhabitants, Catholics and Jews. There are less than 1800 today. In the summer of 1941, all the Jewish residents of Tykocin -  an estimated 3400 – were taken to the nearby forest and shot by the Nazis. The 17th century restored Synagogue there has been preserved as a museum. Even before an awareness of this history, there is a forlorn feeling of these places in the east, with their cobbled streets and timber houses, once thriving rural communities that have been physically and metaphorically emptied within living memory.

The Wiking Inn is a different kind of experience. On the outskirts of Białystok, it’s another huge place, of dark wooded interiors, the perfect size for coach parties or group bookings. It’s near to the forest on a slight rise and a brand new road bypasses it, but it’s big enough to be noticed in the distance. While perhaps the Wikings did manage to sail down the Vistula and ravage a few Warsaw tenements, I’m not sure they made it this far. Nevertheless this place is kitted out with Norse brasses, axes, helmets and shields and there is an anachronistic disco ball in the middle of the rafters.  The wooden menu comes complete with reddish horse hair stuck to the outside, or perhaps it’s wild boar? Ravenous from our raiding and pillaging of Polish culture, we order Kiełbasa z rusztu/grilled sausage, placek po węgiersku/potato fritters ‘hungarian style’. And we’ll certainly try the Szabla Wikinga/Wiking Sword – a plate piled high with different types of meat.

To the north of Warsaw is the village of Rynia, by Zalew Zegrzyński (Zegrzyński Lake), which features a Viking settlement called Warownia Jomsborg. During the summer you might come across the invasion of a Slavic village, battles and rituals – an increasingly popular leisure activity with many Poles. While preparing to traditionally manhandle the portions of meat before us, I wonder if perhaps this will be our next stop?

She asks if I want to try ‘Potato guts Podlasie region style’, but it really does not appeal to me. These places were made in the Seventies and Eighties, she says, when there was a fashion for using wood for interior design, putting it on every wall, like in Scandanavia. You see, this became a symbol that we were becoming a richer country, that it was Ok to consume.

I recalled the shock of the new when I went to live in a house in the south of England at the beginning of the Eighties, where the huge kitchen and bathroom were encased similarly, floor to ceiling with blonde wood. I wondered, Where on earth was the nicotine stained brown floral wallpaper? At the time, it was as alien a concept as yoghurt. (The family, who were teachers, exchanged their house each summer with a family in Sweden for the holidays).

Everyone could be in Scandinavia today, or dressing up as Vikings somewhere out there in the woods. The Tavern itself is quite deserted. Apart from a couple in the corner, we are the only guests at this lunch hour.

barefoot in the sandPosted on 20th July, 2010.

Sopot lies between Gdańsk and Gdynia, a short train ride between them, the three towns together making up the metropolitan area called Trójmiasto. It has the longest wooden pier in Europe, over 500 metres long.* The pier was built in 1827 and extended to its current length in the 1920’s, when an opulent casino was constructed on the seafront (now the Grand Hotel) as a playground for the rich and famous. From the 1960’s it resurrected itself with the birth of Polish beat music and today has some of the greatest property prices in the country.

My first sighting of this premiere league holiday resort was in the first episode of ‘07 zgłoś się’ (originally broadcast in 1976). Our Warsaw cop hero Sławomir Borewicz stays here with his girlfriend, while investigating unruly gangsters. I was then undergoing a crash course in the basement of the Institute of Polish culture (next stop, Violetta Villas and her collection of dogs, Kabaret Starszych Panów/Old Gentlemen’s Cabaret, then Czterej pancerni i pies/ Four tank men and a dog).

Today, far from that fiendish basement and that midwinter scene, we walk down Bohaterów Monte Cassino – the pedestrianised main street crowded with holidaymakers. We go past the pier, walking along the fringe of the golden sands. The end of the pier is undergoing some reconstruction and hammer drills resonate over the bay. We pass a group congregated around the red lifeguard tower. Their bicycle hampers are stuffed full of alcohol. In contrast we simply carry water, pastries, strawberries and raspberries. The bicycles are leaning against the struts of the tower, and so are two of the people. When they let go, they sway as if caught in a strong wind.

As we pass, one of the women is kicking off her jeans and cracking open a bottle with her teeth. My girlfriend asks, Are my contact lenses playing up or is that woman not wearing any underwear? She does have underwear, but it’s skin coloured, so from the waist down she looks like a plastic doll. One of the guys with her staggers down to the water and jumps in fully clothed. Maybe it’s a good idea, as the Baltic can be cold. Not many people are in the water today. Some windsurfers on the horizon, a banana boat ride and a couple of jet-skis.

A significant number of people on the beach are wearing wristbands signifying they are attending the Open’er Festival, four days of music on the site of the old airport at Gdynia. After a hard night of Pearl Jam or Grace Jones, they are relaxing on the sand, eating excellent fried fish at the beach cafes along with celebrities and stars of various kinds. And here comes Katarzyna Figura, once primarily cast as a blond bombshell, though I can recall she had a brief cameo in Polański’s ‘The Pianist’. I wouldn’t have recognised her today, dressed anonymously in white, as perhaps befitting an actress wishing to be undisturbed on her normal summer holiday.

Her two kids are making sandcastles, which is not so easy with this fine sand. Her husband is filming them – it looks quite a production, and the kids are getting a bit bored with all the retakes. When Dad’s back is turned, the older girl sulkily kicks the sandcastle to smithereens. Then there’s writer Jerzy Pilch sitting on a wall, looking past the fried fish to the Baltic. You should go and talk to him, A- says, He writes a lot about alcohol. His book ‘The Mighty Angel’ won the Nike Literary Award in 1991. She tells me it’s about the alcoholic misadventures of a writer named Jerzy. Perhaps you would like it? I wander by and promise to look it up.

* If England were to consider itself part of Europe, then the pier at Southend-on-Sea would qualify as the longest. Originally built in 1846,            it is 2,158 metres long.

I do like to see a man in shiny armour, don’t you?Posted on 18th July, 2010.

For some years I have planned to go to Grunwald, to the site of the greatest battle in Medieval Europe. This battle took place on 15th July, 1410, five years before Agincourt when the Enlish longbowmen of Henry V devastated the French.  In the modern era, this is World of Warcraft brought to life – or a real life version of Call of Duty – where men in plate armour on horse and on foot (with a few female camp followers) lovingly recreate one of the biggest and bloodiest feudal conflicts, when 60,000 men fought each other.

Often portrayed as a Polish /German conflict, it was a little more complex, with a Polish/ Lithuanian army facing the Teutonic Knights of Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen, supplemented by an assortment of Hungarians, Ruthenians, Tatars, Russians and Czechs. The Grand Master was defeated at Grunwald with huge losses, 11,000 dead and 14,000 captured. Grand Master Ulrich died in the battle. There is a famous painting of the battle (1878) by Jan Matejko which portrays this moment when the Grand Master is killed, by infantry when trying to attack Vytautus the Great (they don’t have names like that anymore, except in the circus), Grand Duke of Lithuania. The painting is substantial in size, 10 foot by 17 foot, and can be seen in the National Museum in Warsaw.

The battle has attained mythological proportions, a national symbol of heroic struggle against invaders, and the recreation is a hugely popular event.

After weeks of high temperatures and softening tarmac and no relief of rain, we don’t plan to make the pilgrimage to Grunwald this year.  (You can see some fine pictures here.) My girlfriend thinks it’s too hot to be in a car and to make this journey. Let’s just stay in Warsaw for the weekend and melt here, she says, It’s impossible to move. I think she has a point. A frostito at Coffee Heaven will be the order of the day, though I can’t help imagining sharing a shot of vodka with those knights by the campfire. A full suit of medieval armour weighed about 60 lb (27 kg) – which is lighter than the equipment carried by today’s armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, wearing around 90 pounds. Thirsty work,  though after a day in this heat in full battle dress I suspect the contemporary knights of Grunwald might need several litres of beer rather than vodka.

Of course, there is an alternative event at this time of year, with several thousands of people taking to the streets of Warsaw for Europride 2010, calling for greater tolerance and equal rights. No body armour in evidence (unless you count fake breasts) – rather rainbow flags and a soundtrack of Madonna and the Village People. An anti-Europride demonstration, organised by the nationalist All Polish Youth Organization, also took place – called the Grunwald March. The recently failed Presidential candidate Mr Kaczynski was not seen, either in beautifully shiny armour or a pink feather boa.

Short conversation in a Gdańsk barPosted on 11th July, 2010.

I’m a bit of a Second World War buff, he said. That’s why I’ve been to Poland a few times. Here, of course, that war began on September 1st, 1939, with the dawn bombardment of Polish positions at Westerplatte by the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein and the landing of German infantry on the peninsula. The Westerplatte is a promontory at the harbour entrance beyond the shipyards, and several tourist boats from the old town waterfront run there and back. On that fateful day, German forces attacked the Polish Post Office. The surviving postal workers were executed as partisans.*  In March 1945, the city fell to the Red Army. In the carnage, little of the city remained. What was left of the German population in the area were expelled, and the city repopulated with Poles from Central Poland and the eastern settlements annexed by the Soviets. The city was rebuilt, as an important maritime and industrial centre for the Communist bloc.

He was a big friendly Brummie in his fifties, with a beach boy shirt and a shock of bleached blonde spiky hair. After sharing our parochial memories of the Steve Gibbons Band and 12-bar blues joints, he told me of his Polish adventures. Warsaw, Kraków, Auschwitz - Birkenau, been to ’em all, he said. He hadn’t yet been to the Stutthoff concentration camp to the east of Gdańsk, from where bodies (mostly Poles, Russians, Uzbeks) were supplied to the Danzig Anatomical Medical Institute for the manufacture of soap and leather. This gruesome work continued even as the city went up in flames. As historian Anthony Beevor put it: “The most astonishing aspects of this appalling story are that nothing was destroyed before the Red Army arrived and that Professor Spanner and his associates never faced charges after the war. The processing of corpses was not a crime.”**

He was impressed by the salt mines at Wieliczka and the square at Krakow. Big, isn’t it? Supposed to be the biggest in Europe. Went and did the Schindler’s List thing as well. Now Gdańsk and, you know, I like Gdańsk the most. It surprised me. Last time I was in Warsaw, I went with my blind cousin. That was a story. I like to stay in those hotels named after the Three Musketeers. Aramis is a big grey one, like housing estate around it. They’re alright. The public transport’s good, isn’t it, but after a few bevvies I’m lazy and I get a taxi. We were in this beer only place, me and my cousin, bit of a dive but alright. Then they brought out this vodka from the freezer. I don’t think they were supposed to sell it, but anyway we finished it off. Then the owner sent this young lad out to get another from the shop, so we had a few that night. Wyborowa it was was called. Very nice, that one. Later, my cousin kept saying, We’re in the wrong hotel, we’re in the wrong hotel. I said, No, we’re not, what are you on about? He kept saying, But we’re in the wrong hotel. All slurred like. I said, Don’t be daft, you’re blind drunk, how would you know? He said, I can tell cos there’s no carpet on the floor in this place. He was bloody right you know.

Lovely people the Poles, he said. Lovely beer. Good music. And lovely women. Even the ugly ones are beautiful here, aren’t they?

He assured me it wasn’t the drink talking. I told him he was preaching to the converted.

* A fictionalised account of these days can be found in ‘The Tin Drum’ by Günter Grass, first published in 1959, with a new English translation published for the 50th anniversary.
**Anthony Beevor, ‘Berlin – the Downfall’, 2008

Monuments and MemorialsPosted on 6th July, 2010.


The sun sets over the famous shipyard in Gdańsk, mostly redundant now. Outside the gates a few pilgrims read the memorial plaques, explain their significance to their children. A few guys sit on the grass near to the three crosses monument to the shipyard workers who were killed in the strikes and demonstrations of 1970. They crack open some beers. Young kids on skateboards pass by. Across the tram tracks the faded shop lettering on the walls provides a reminder of when this was the Free City of Danzig, and before World War One, when it was part of Imperial Germany. Elsewhere graffiti proclaims ‘STOP UGODOWYM ZWIĄZKOM ZAWODOWYM’  (Stop to conciliatory worker unions). Some of the pre-war tenement blocks are boarded up, others show some faint sign of life. A girl with a dozen piercings in her face cycles round the back of a ruined building and enters a door, which is framed by anarchist symbols. Two signs are placed in the back yard: ZAKAZ SRANIA CHUJU!!! (Don’t shit here, you dick!!!) and ABSOLUTNY ZAKAZ ROBIENIA KUPY!!! (It’s absolutely forbidden to have a pooh here).

Next to the shipyard gate, where Lech Wałęsa announced the signing of the agreement on 31st August, 1980, which ended strikes and allowed the formation of free autononmous trade unions, freshly painted tenement blocks on one side and a school that looks like a church. On the other side, there is a 24 hour parking compound which abuts the fence of the yard. A watchman sits in a chair at the entrance, basking in the last rays of the sun. A caged guard dog barks incessantly.

A few minutes walk away there’s a substantial exhibition “Roads to Freedom” - housed in an underground bunker on Wały Piastowskie Street (under the offices of Solidarity headquarters). This bunker was built by the Nazis for hospital purposes and the exhibition itself was originally in the shipyard building where the 1980 Accords were signed. With films, installations, artefacts and computer screens spread over several rooms, the exhibition presents the history of the period 1956-1989 from the ‘dull and crude the dull and reality of the Polish People’s Republic’ to the vanguard of opposition in the shipyards, the forming of Solidarity, martial law and the round table talks which led to the first free elections. At the entrance, people enjoy posing for photographs in the reconstruction of a PRL shop with barely anything on the shelves – there was rationing from 1976 due to ‘temporary lack of stocks’.

Further along, where part of the docks show some semblance of work, along a crumbling outer shipyard wall is a long mural, stencilled with memories from dockers, the words and images increasingly obscured with weeds and bushes.

Later, we sit outside Brovarnia Gdańska, an 18th century granary building on Szafarnia converted into a microbrewery and hotel. There is a new marina in front of us, the island of Spichlerze which still has some crumbling walls of old Danzig dock buildings, and beyond that the river Motława, Ulica Długie Pobneże and the entrance to the old town.

For most people, Gdańsk stops right here at the river, she says. This island is the border. Where we are now, on the eastern side, is being redeveloped, with new expensive apartment blocks going up behind the brewery. Behind here is where all the pathological families lived and it’s pretty rough. Now it’s slowly being gentrified. And where these families will be moved to, no-one seems to know.