Witnessing ‘W’ Hour

Across the road from my apartment is the grounds of Krasinski Park and Palace.  Built in 1683 for the provincial governor of Plock, who was heir to a large fortune.  He set about building this residence in Poland’s capital to fulfil his political ambitions and show pride in his family.  It was purchased by the Polish state in 1765 and partly rebuilt after a fire in 1783 only to be completed burned down and demolished by the Germans in WW2.  It was of course rebuilt and you’d probably never know, as with most of the restoration work undertaken in Warsaw.

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The gardens have been accessible to the public since 1768 and the space is enjoyed by young and old today.  Covering 9.2 hectares, there are different gardens, water fountains, ponds, deck chairs and places to lay.  Heck, there’s even free wifi!

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So it’s a really enjoyable stroll through the gardens on my way to meet my cousins at POLIN this morning.  POLIN is the Museum of the History of Jews in Poland – all 1,000 years of it.  And to be honest, that will feel exactly how long you will feel like you are in there for!

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It’s an extremely comprehensive museum covering aspects of Jewish life and the struggles of the Jewish people, including Poland in WW2.  There are lots of interactive displays and lots and lots of information.  I did feel a little overwhelmed upon leaving to be honest.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a great museum and if you have the time and the inclination to visit, you will enjoy it.  I just found it a little much.

After a brief morning tea stop in the cafe of POLIN, we make our way alongside Krasinski to the Supreme Court of Poland, where we are visiting our cousin Dorotka.  She’s an Under-Officer there and she’s agreed to give us the grand tour.  Here in this building they try both civil and criminal cases.  We start with a trip to the roof-top which has a lovely view over Dluga Street and across the city…

…before Dorotka locks us in a cell!

Lunch is served in the milk-bar style cafeteria, with a choice of 4 dishes.  I choose the cutlet with potatoes and soup with a glass of kompot.  It’s super tasty, as the simplest dishes are, and we chat a little about the family during the war, until the airport calls to say Katherine’s luggage has finally arrived.

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The building itself is rather modern, having been built in the mid 1990’s; green metal stairways throw their hue across large panelled glass walls and an outer corner of the building is held upon the heads of three large copper women.  It’s worth a look, even just from the outside.

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Wieslaw comes to collect us and briefly shows us the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army across the road before offering to drive the Pruski’s out to the airport to collect their missing luggage.  This is where Paula’s son was recently baptised.

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Walking inside, along the side walls are memorial plaques to all those in notable military units who have lost their lives, including those in the Smolensk air disaster.  Inside the cathedral you can see all sorts of decorative icons, including the headress associated with the legendary winged hussars.

Going our separate ways, I head back to my apartment to map out a plan of attack for this afternoon’s Warsaw Uprising Commemoration.  I planned this trip to make sure I was in Warsaw for this event but one thing I hadn’t quite nutted out was exactly which vantage point I would watch it from.  Paula had originally planned to come with me and we were going to head to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but she couldn’t make it.  I knew I wanted to be where the action was, I just didn’t know where that would be until I caught a glimpse of a Facebook post that mentioned the Rotunda near the Palace of Science and Culture.  So that’s where I headed, stopping to buy an arm band along the way and pinning on a small brooch that some cadet girls passed me.

 

For those that don’t know about this day, the citizens of Warsaw spare a minute’s silence in which the whole city stops to remember those who made sacrifices during the Warsaw Uprising.  Before coming to Poland, I had seen a video titled There is a City, which not only made me cry, but sums it up perfectly.

Anyway, standing on the corner of the Rotunda, trying to find the perfect spot (when I’m not actually sure what’s going to happen or where), I hear the road of motorcycles.  Heaps of motorcycles.  Which scares me at first.  They roar up onto the middle of the Rotunda and wait.  Everyone’s waiting.  I have no idea what the time is, but then the chanting starts, so I guess it’s close to 5pm now.  I have no idea what the chanting is either, but it tapers off, Polish flags go up and one by one, flares are let go.  Smoke and red light fills the atmosphere.  It’s hot and red.  After the one minute of silence, the motorbike’s rev their engines.  It’s hot and red and loud.  And oh so patriotic and stirring.  I feel tears start to well.

W Hour

Then it’s over and the crowds disburse.

 

 

 

 

Bright Lights on the Wild Side

Praga has always been known as Warsaw’s ‘wild side’.  Think criminal underclass, dilapidated tenement buildings and black market trade.  At one time it was even known as the Bermuda Triangle.   And although the artists and musicians have now moved in and given the place an edgier feel, there’s no denying you can feel the shift when you cross the Vistula and arrive in Praga.

Today, this is where the Pruski’s and I will be exploring but I arrive about half an hour before our meeting point time to do some exploring of my own.  My Dziadzia’s (grandfather) war-time military documents note my Babcia’s (grandmother) last address in Poland as ulica Il Listopowde.  There’s no further indication of whether that was in Warsaw proper or in Praga, but seeing as the Praga version comes up on all my Google searches, I can’t miss the opportunity to see if I can find the building.

I walk up and down Il Listopowde, knowing where the building should be in the scheme of those around it according to the street numbers, but I can only find empty spaces. (Google-searching again later it seems I walked about 500m short of the destination, but unfortunately didn’t make it back there before I left Poland).

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Disappointed, I head to the Galeria Wilenska mall to wait for my cousins.  A few moments later, we are crossing the road to ulica Targowa 59 to see where my great aunt, Ciocia Ana, lived most of her life.  Ana spent the duration of WW2 living in Praga, after unsuccessfully trying to reach the rest of the family in Ostrow; though at a different address not far from here.  Praga was relatively untouched during the war – if you compare it to Warsaw.  For some reason it didn’t interest the Russians or the Germans, though I have no doubt life was seriously tough.  Dad was fortunate to meet her on his first trip to Poland, but she died a few years after.  I unfortunately never met her, which is a shame because I believe she would have had a book-load of stories to tell.

I have often wondered what it would have been like for her, sitting out the war here, not knowing what had happened to her family or whether she would ever see them again.

There are some other interesting things to see in Praga, but we need a fueling stop before we move on, so finding a Polish bakery we load up on pastries and lattes.  The cakes are really good.  On the whole, Polish cakes and pastries are not as sickly sweet as I’m used to, which is refreshing.  My niece Lola is in love with Sernik, Polish cheesecake.

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A short walk away lies the newly opened Vodka Museum and it’s been at the top of all our ‘to do’ lists prior to arriving in Warsaw.

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Housed in the old Koneser Vodka Factory which has been beautifully restored to bring you the incredible story of Polish vodka, this museum is definitely worth the trip to the gritty side.  Especially if you are a vodka fan.

First a short video is screened in the beautiful old cinema, outlining the history of Polish Vodka, and in particular the Wyborowa brand.  Wyborowa is one of the most popular Polish Vodka’s (it’s a rye vodka) and was the first to become an international trademark.

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Then you learn the even longer history of vodka itself, how it is distilled, how many types and brands there are and even partake in some little quizzes – including putting on some ‘alco goggles’.

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Now that was an interesting experience and I’m proud to say I have never in my life been that drunk that my world looks like what I saw through those glasses!

The tour concludes with three tastings of different types and brands of vodka.  The tastings included Wyborowa, Luksusova and Ostoya.  Wyborowa,as I explained earlier, is a rye vodka.  Luksusova is a potato bodka and Ostoya is a wheat vodka; the wheat is grown in the Bieszczady mountains (which I’ll visit later).  I simply had no idea that different vodka’s tasted so completely different.  I thought vodka, was vodka.  It was at this point that my new appreciation for vodka began and I vowed never to drink rubbish vodka again.

By the way, my pick is go with the Ostoya.  Can you guess which one was my least favourite.

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An Uber-ride away, lies the Soho Factory – an ‘avant-guarde space for culture and business’.  Soho seems to be a continually evolving space, but the one thing that has remained constant since the concept was created, is the Neon Museum.

This highly recommended museum is dedicated to the preservation of Cold War era signs.  It’s a small space with a lot crammed in.  Little placards explain the history of some of the signs here, advising which building the sign came from, which includes cities from all across Poland.  There’s a small gift shop on site for those who like to take home souvenir mugs and the like.

Also on the grounds of Soho is restaurant Warsawa Wschodnia, sooo posh the waiter’s place the food on your plate for you, portion by portion, throwing unamused looks at those who attempt to do so themselves.  In fact, it is one of Mateusz Gessler’s restaurants.  The food, I ordered the Risotto with Boletus (mushroom risotto) was fantastic, but I’ve never fitted into a place less.

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Warsawa Wschodnia is open 24/7.  Unsual for such a dining experience, but as Mateusz explains; “there is always a good time for good food”.  The restaurant is beautiful, with an industrial edge to it and I’d definitely go back – perhaps dressed a little better.

We bid our farewells at the tram stop, as the tracks differ for our journeys home.  I’m looking forward to a quiet one tonight because tomorrow will be busy.

Nearing my apartment, a crowd is gathering for a concert in memory of the Warsaw Uprising, tomorrow being the actual day of commemoration.  The concert is love songs from the Uprising.

 

 

Warsaw Through My Own Eyes

I was last in Warsaw about four years ago.  I was making my way through several European countries and agreed to meet Mum and Dad there on my way home.  They had also been travelling, though through different countries.  It was my first trip to Poland.  Mum and Dad hadn’t been particularly impressed by Poland on their first visit and I had wanted to change their opinion.  We did loads of fun things and had an awesome time in Krakow, but I still ended up feeling like Warsaw wasn’t open to the world.  Yet.

What would I think this time?

From what I’d seen on social media in the long lead-up to this trip, Warsaw had made great strides.  In fact, it now had way cooler looking stuff going on than Perth (though, you know my conflicted feelings about Perth by now).  Throwing away any notions from the last trip and being here completely on my own agenda, I couldn’t wait to explore every inch of the city and find out.

My cousins from Wales also arrived in Warsaw yesterday, though missing luggage has put them behind the 8-ball and I haven’t yet had the opportunity to catch up with them.  Today I’ll hopefully get that chance.

The sun rises early for my first morning in Warsaw.  My apartment is a small studio, basically one room with a bathroom and a loft. Two beautiful large windows open out to a courtyard housing nothing much except noisy people in the early hours of the morning.

Wanting Warsaw to myself for a little while, I walk to the Old Town.  The cafes and shops are yet to open, apart from the couple of Carrefourre Express stores hiding in the quiet.  The heat has already rolled in for the day and the sky is right blue.  There are only a few people out and about.  It’s hard to believe this is a city that was rebuilt almost from scratch over 70 years ago.

The weather in Warsaw is humid – just like a Perth summer in fact.  And it doesn’t take me long to realise I have not packed appropriately.  I mean, I knew it would be summer and I was hoping it would be nice and warm, but a conversation with someone prior to leaving got me second guessing and I packed thinking ‘oh it won’t be THAT hot’.  So, with little budget available for an extra travel wardrobe, I leave the Old Town and head to Marszalkowska Street to carefully select some clothes which are a bit more suitable to this heatwave.  I find a cool pair of cotton pants and am flicking through a rack of t-shirts when I hear ‘do you think this dress suits me?’.  I turn to see my cousin Chris, holding up a colourful summer dress to himself.  His daughter Katherine, who I’ve not met before (but recognise from Facebook photos) comes up not far behind him, then Chris’ wife Sharon wanders over too.  The four of us catch up quickly – I haven’t seen Chris and Sharon since my trip to Wales just before my trip to Poland, and head back to our shopping, agreeing to catch up later for a glass of wine at Cafe Sloik not far away.

Cafe Sloik is filled with colourful jars.  It’s an interesting choice of name.  Officially, it means jar.  But it’s also slang for a person from a small town that works or studies in Warsaw and leads most of their social life in their hometown.  The name is derived from the jars of cooked food which the stereotypical słoik brings back to Warsaw from their hometown to save money.   Scanning the menu for the cheapest items, I wish I had bought a meal from home!  Not that Poland is expensive, because it’s not, but my budget was based on eating at my apartment as much as possible.  I settle on carpaccio and a negroni and enjoy both.

A couple drinks under our belt, it’s time to head to Wieslaw and Dorotka’s for dinner – our first official family dinner.  I haven’t seen them since my last (and first) visit to Warsaw four years ago.  Dorotka is Dad’s cousin and mother to Paula, Zuzanna and Maja.  Paula and Maja are already there, along with Paula’s baby son Marcel, and Stan who is related by marriage to Chris’s mother.  Broken Polish-English conversations abound but between us we have a great old time.

Family Dinner with Pruskis

We enjoy an array of delicious dishes thanks to Wieslaw’s cooking prowess and there are plenty of drinks, hallmarks of Polish hospitality.  Plans are made to meet again in the next day or so.  It feels great to be here surrounded by the other side of my family, which I have not yet had the luxury of getting to know in depth.  I hope this trip will be filled with chances to do just that.

Welcomed in Warsaw

After flying forever, I can’t explain what it felt like to arrive in Warsaw for five whole glorious weeks of exploration.  Exploration of the city, exploration of my roots and exploration of what it meant to me to be Polish and proud of my heritage.  Five weeks of spending time with family, honing my language skills, travelling around and eating as many pierogi as possible.

I walked out of Gate 2 at Chopin International, only to find that my gorgeous cousins Paula and Maja were awaiting me outside Gate 1 with flowers, sparkling wine and welcoming signs.  I have never felt this kind of reception myself, though I’ve seen it at other airports and always thought that must be really nice!  And it was.  I felt welcomed the minute I saw them and knew that spending five weeks here in Warsaw getting to know my family was going to be just awesome.

We drove a short distance through Warsaw’s streetsto what would be my home for the next five weeks – an Air BNB apartment located in Dluga Street, very close to Warsaw’s Old Town and about 20 minutes away from my cousins.  It was the perfect location, and the perfect apartment (thank you Anna and Bartosz).

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The girls left, which gave me some time to shower, rest, unpack and check out the local area for groceries.

It’s been almost four years to the date since I was last in Warsaw (give or take a month) and I didn’t spend more than a few hours in the Old Town at that time, so I’m keen to start having a look around to explore just what it is that makes it every tourist’s No. 1 stop in Warsaw.  Firstly though I need groceries, so I hit the streets and find a little Zabka grocery store where I buy a packet of frozen pierogi (sacriligous I know), and head home to cook them up for dinner.

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Feeling guilty that I’m spending my first night in Poland with fake pierogi (OK, truth be told they actually weren’t that bad, fried up with a bit of butter I grabbed off the plane, but you know what I mean), I pull my tired self together and head out into the night air to soak up the atmosphere of the Old Town on a Saturday night.

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It was a great move because the evening is beautifully warm, the light is just gorgeous and the town’s restaurants are full of people enjoying Polish cuisine and hospitality.  Perhaps tomorrow, after a good night’s rest, I will be one of those people.

Who Saw Warsaw Coming?

Apart from that little long weekend in Singapore all the way back in February, I have only one trip planned for this year. But it’s a big one. Five weeks, yes five weeks, in Poland.  Well, mostly Warsaw.

IN THE SAME COUNTRY! I know right!

You know me, I usually like to tick off 5 or 6 countries when I visit Europe.  That way, it makes the super long flight worth it.  But this travel thing is about evolving.  And although I love getting to as many places as possible, on recent trips I’ve found myself really wishing I’d had more time in each place.

Well, this trip I’m giving myself plenty of time.  And with good reason because I am heading back to Warsaw, home of my paternal lineage.  It’s gonna be a kind of root finding exercise.  I will be searching for family birthplaces, possible new relatives and my lost pierogi-consuming, mushroom-picking, vodka-drinking heritage.

Dad’s family were part of a relatively unknown page of WWII history.  I say unknown, because many of the survivors were told never to discuss it.  They were ashamed to do so, just wanted to forget it or, even sadder, just didn’t think anyone would be interested.  I’ve done a lot of research into this period of history over the last few years and never realised the struggles my family faced.  Those who are interested are welcome to read about my geneology search at my website Looking for the Lukasiks.  For those who are not so interested, here’s a brief wrap up; because it forms the basis of so much of what this trip will be about for me.

World War II broke out in Gdansk on 1 September 1939 when the Germans swept into Poland from the West. The Russians swept in from the East on 17 September and deported the Poles living there to Siberia.  This area was named ‘Kresy‘, or borderlands.  Many thousands died and those who survived, spent the next decade, displaced and wandering the world, looking for shelter and safety.  New lives were created in new countries after the war; a new Polish diaspora.

I am lucky that the majority of my family survived, unlike others.  But I never really knew their story until recently.

My wishes for this trip?  That I can piece together a clearer picture of who my family was, gain a deeper understanding of my heritage and what it means to be Polish.

From what I’ve seen on social media, things have changed in Warsaw since my last visit.  I’ve been watching this city come alive with keen interest and looking back on the words I wrote after my last trip to Warsaw:

Warsaw – what can I say – I read recently that you have a face that only a mother can love. And it’s true. I know you want to open up, but I don’t think you can just yet. I’ll give you time and see how you go, but you are brave and you are a fighter and you have a fantabulous history that the world is waiting to hear about.

I’d say the buzz that was just starting when I visited in 2014 is now blooming and I can’t wait to check it out!  Let the count down begin.

The Sound of Music

I LOVE music.  Love, love, love.  Everything that goes through my head is accompanied by a song of some kind.  It’s like the soundtrack to life and a song can COMPLETELY change my mood.  Like last night.  I had a really shit week at work this week.  I mean really shit.  I even left work in tears one evening.  So I was going to come home and spend my Friday night getting in an early one to start the weekend right.  But I felt like crap.  I was tired, too tired to cook and definitely too tired to resist picking up a bottle of wine (ok, maybe it was two bottles….)

Bottle shopping done, I flicked on my iPad to listen to some new tunes I had downloaded onto my iPod over the weekend and hit play.  What the actual hell?  This shit was awesome!!!  Really awesome.  I mean, it had to be to actually pull me out of the mood I was in.

I got home, threw myself on the couch and flicked the bluetooth button on my Bose speakers to stream the incredible sounds from my iPod through to the rest of the house.  Instantly my bad mood did a backflip and I felt much, much better.  What was so good about them?  I mean, it’s not like I could understand any of the lyrics.

So what were these mystical tunes that turned my week around?  These lyrics I couldn’t understand?  The awesomeness that is Polish hip-hop.

Yep, Polish.  You might think that’s taking my destination research a little far, but I am Polish and my upcoming visit to Poland spurred me on to learn a bit more about the music scene.  So who have I been listening to?  Heavy bass, sophisticated, sexy beats –  little moody (but I love that) and some good looking Polish guys.  What’s not to like?  It’s based on the Toronto sound (think Drake).  Ok, there’s still the hot chicks, lavish lifestyle shots and fancy cars (though it’s Poland remember, so it’s old school beemers and sports cars direct from the 1980’s) but there’s a sensitivity to these tunes that I haven’t heard before.  Warsaw’s history feels like its written all over its face.

Let me introduce you to Taco Hemingway, Quebonafide, PlanBe and a few of the guys….

Taco – great hair, which carries on from his head down to his eyebrows and moustache.  Suave.  Excellent rapper, and you’ll always remember his voice.  Love 6zer where he grooves away with whisky in hand, without seemingly losing a drop.  This was the first song of his I heard and I loved it straight away simply because it featured my favourite Polish words “bardzo prosze”.

Quebonafide – ok’s, he’s diff.  Coloured hair, gold grillz, tatts galore (neck, fingers, eyelids, inside mouth), pokes his tongue out every five minutes, maniacal glint in his eye, but if you look through all that…. Que’s songs are madness, especially his travel rap stuff.  Beautiful clips from his world travels mixed with social comment.  He does loads of collabs, so check out his stuff with Planbe and Taco (at least).

Planbe – my favourite (such a lovely face, with quite possibly the nicest nose I’ve ever seen on a man).  I’m obsessed with the way his hands move when he raps.  His music is tinged with a touch of sadness and longing and he has probably the best voice of all the Polish rappers I’ve heard so far.  Plus he comes from a part of Poland not too far away from where my step-grandfather lived.  If I can’t catch a Planbe gig while I’m in Poland, I’ll die….

Bedoes – ok, he doesn’t have the smooth, cool raptones of the others, but there’s something quirky about him.  Boy can he roll his tongue.

Otsochodzi – he’s like a rich schoolboy, chillin in his dad’s mansion, with never a care in life.  You know the type, looks like Sam Prince from Made in Chelsea, best friends with everyone (before the whole Tiff Watson episode obvs).  I don’t actually know any of this about him, it’s the vibe I get.  He has an interesting rap style, full of sounds and cheek rather than vocal substance, but that makes his stuff catchy and playful.  Whimsical even  #Facepalm.

Thank god for Youtube, cause I’d currently be racking up one hell of a bill on downloading all this music (not that I won’t be doing that before I get to Poland, but I am TRYING to save right now….)

It got me thinking how amazing it is, that no matter the language, music is one of those things that really has no barriers.  It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand the lyrics, it’s the emotion it stirs up inside you, the way it makes you feel and groove.  The way it can change your mood in an instant.  These artists have reeled me right in and I’m loving exploring all their tunes.  Needless to say, it ended up being a long night last night, but in a really awesome way.

As I mentioned, these guys do loads of collabs, so it makes it really easy to get caught in Polish hiphop Youtube spirals all night long, checking out new artists.

Move over Kpop, there’s some new kids in town….

Changi Beach Vibes

I’ve been saying forever that I want to explore Singapore’s Changi area more.  And yet it’s somewhere I’ve still not seemed to reach.  Until now.  A ten to fifteen minute cab ride from Changi Airport, you find a very different side of Singapore.  A welcome distraction from the glitz of Orchard Road or the overpriced drinks of the Quays.  I almost feel reluctant to tell you about it.  It’s Changi Beach.

Tapping my EZLink card on the POS machine to pay for my fare (so handy), I hop out of the cab.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect upon arriving here, so I’m not sure where to head first.  The waterfront seems like a good idea.  A wooden boardwalk overlooks a jumble of boats, gently bobbing with the tide.  This is Changi Point Ferry Terminal and these boats will willingly whisk you away to Pulau Ubin (which I STILL haven’t made it to…).  All you have to do is wait til there’s enough people to fill the boat.  It’s a couple of bucks per ride, plus a little more if you are taking a bike with you, and the boats hold twelve people.  It’s all cash operated and there are no set departure times.

Ferry Terminal
Ferry Terminal
Idyllic
Idyllic

Alongside the terminal, is the Changi Point Coastal Walk, an easy 2.2km scenic walk.  Opposite the terminal, a small concrete bridge leads you to Changi Beach Park.  Here you’ll find a massive hand pointing to the sky (no idea what that’s about) and the site of the Changi Beach Massacre.  This place is relaxing and there are people dotted across the shoreline, enjoying each others company, fishing or just strolling.

Changi Beach Sculpture
Which way?
Changi Beach Massacre Plaque
Changi Beach Massacre Plaque

But if you aren’t heading out to Pulau Ubin (PU), or looking to chill along the beach, there’s plenty of places to eat.  It was hard to decide where to head for really.  The beachfront grill with the cool live tunes?  Or one of the no-doubt awesome local eateries which line the village or back up the road to the very retro Coastal Settlement?  But the afternoon heat was rolling in and as I lifted my sunnies to wipe away the sweat, one word caught my eye.  “Brewing”.  This word belonged to the Little Island Brewing Company and once I’d spotted that word, there was no turning back.

At LIBC, you purchase a card and top it up with cash and then you are ready to tap and drink from a range of local brews.

Little Island Brewing Co. Drinks Card
Little Island Brewing Co. Drinks Card

They also have a fair sized menu and lots of space to chill. And the beer is pretty damn good!

LIBC Brew
LIBC Brew

It’s definitely a place I’d love to come back to; perhaps next time I’ll be boarding one of those boats for my illusive PU trip!