Meet The Cancelled Czech: A Biography of Dan Havlena

Dan, the son of a diplomat, was born into an affluent Czechoslovak family in 1922. The early years of his life were filled with extraordinary events including meeting Stalin and sitting on his knee, and watching the Germans test jet engine prototypes prior to World War II. However, both of these incidents are eclipsed by his remarkable and desperate escape from Communism.

Having obtained an engineering degree and wishing to embark on a career in the international oil industry, Dan earnestly sought a means of escape from Communism. He considered trekking over mountains and swimming across rivers in order to avoid frontier controls. However, ultimately, he decided on hijacking an aeroplane. On the 6th of April, 1948, Dan, the leader of seventeen determined Czechs (three members of the crew, including the pilot, and fourteen passengers) seized a commercial aeroplane at gunpoint and flew it to the United States-controlled zone of Germany. The Czechoslovak National Airlines aeroplane was flying from Prague to Bratislava when the hijackers tried to divert the aeroplane to London but, ultimately, landed in Munich. Despite being given a chance to escape the poor living conditions and oppression within Eastern Europe at that time, only three other passengers grasped the opportunity to flee Czechoslovakia.


Unfortunately, the plot to hijack the Czechoslovak National Airlines aeroplane had dire consequences for Jan Masaryk, the son of Tomas Masaryk, the founder and first President of Czechoslovakia and founder of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Jan Masaryk held the position of Foreign Minister for Czechoslovakia between 1940 and 1948. He was supposed to join the hijackers but had died, falling out of a window, on the 10th March, 1948 at his Czernin Palace apartment.

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Warsaw Air Drop – Poetry in Motion

Chapman Freeborn Airchartering has assisted in a high-profile public art project dropping bookmarks containing poetry on cities that have subjected to aerial bombing raids.  The air charter specialist’s Poland office assisted in arrangements for the Warsaw Bombing of Poems event by coordinating a MI-2 helicopter charter to drop one hundred thousand poems printed on bookmarks over the streets of the capital’s Old Town on 2 October 2009.

The poem drop took place without warning and under the cover of night, in a move that mirrored events from more than 60 years ago. Thousands of residents in Warsaw’s Old Town took to the streets to witness the spectacle and catch the bookmarks, whose poems were written in their mother tongues by Chilean and Polish contemporary poets. Warsaw was the fourth city chosen to host the Bombing of Poems.  This year the city commemorates the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of WWII and 65th the anniversary of Warsaw Uprising.

The event has been carried out previously in three different places: the government palace of Chile called La Moneda bombed by Pinochet on 11 September 1973, the city of Dubrovnik (Croatia) shelled on 6 December 1991 by Serbian and Montenegrin forces and the city of Guernica (Basque Country, Spain) which suffered the first Nazi air-bombardment on 26 April 1937.

The idea behind the Bombing of Poems is to contrast terrifying acts of war designed to kill and injure civilians and destroy civic morale with the power of peace poems inspiring hope and forgiveness.  The next Bombing of Poems is due to happen in Berlin in 2010 or 2011.

To watch a video of the event click here

To find out more visit

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Thracian Chariot Display in Sofia

bulgaria-chariotThis Wednesday an exhibition displaying a golden decoration chariot from Ancient Thrace opened in the Mall of Sofia. The Thracian chariot was discovered in 1976 near the village of Karanovo but there was little interest in the incredible find. That was until this year when archaeologist, Veselin Ignatov, head of the history museum in Nova Zagora, and a specialist on Thracian chariots, found it as he was inspecting the museum basement.

The decorative plaque is 52 cm long, 12 cm wide, and 0.3 cm thick. It was placed on the lower back part of the chariot, which was more likely a luxury passenger car rather than a war chariot. The image appears to be an ancient building, probably a temple. Other decorations include a busy of Hercules and two heads of Medusa. To date, over 200 chariots dated back to Thracian and Roman times have been found in Bulgaria by both archaeologists and treasure hunters. In comparison, only two chariots have been found in the rest of Roman Empire – one in Pompeii, and one in Ephesus; and about 20 chariots have so far been discovered in Hungary.

The chariot will be on display until 22nd September 2009.

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Visit World War II Historical Sites with

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the start of Second World War. With you can step back in time with a comprehensive guide to European sites, the history of which will always be closely linked to the horrific events of World War II.

Gdansk – First shot fired, 1 September 1939

Despite the overwhelming superiority of German forces, the 180 Polish soldiers manning the Westerplatte garrison managed to withstand bombardment from sea, land and air for almost seven days before being forced to surrender.

Stay at: Hotel Podewils ***** prices start from £114 per room per night

Hotel Podewils is a restored baroque mansion, built in 1728 by the noted stonemason Krzysztof Strzelecki. It enjoys a prominent place on the embankment of the Motlawa River next to the marina, two kilometres from the Old Town of Gdansk. After a day of sightseeing guests can unwind with a Finnish or Turkish sauna, or retire to the lounge bar for an aperitif. To book go to

Hotel Podewils, Gdansk

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Take a Tour: Second World War Tunnels in Kranj

The old town centre of Kranj is situated on a conglomerate prominence (from the Pleistocene era) between the rivers Sava and Kokra.  The conglomerate is mostly well agglutinated, only in few places quite loosen bound together.  The gravel stones were bound into conglomerate during the warmer interglacial periods. In the favourable climatic conditions the lime binder glued the gravel stones together.  The later rising and falling of underground waters dissolved the lime binder and caused karstification and forming of cracks, grottoes, caverns, caves and even rock falls.  Similar processes are still going on today.

The Old Town, Kranj
The Old Town, Kranj

The tunnels under Kranj and the surrounding have been carved into Pleistocene conglomerates.  The conglomerate walls can be clearly seen where there is no concrete coating. All the manmade tunnels were dug during World War II, for the purpose of sheltering the civilian population. The Kranj community started building tunnels on the eve of World War II.  The work was newly started during the occupation in 1944, when the danger of allied forces bombing from Italy increased.  The tunnel works were carried out by two construction companies from Kranj – Josip Slavec (known for construction of bridges and high-speed roads before the war) and Josip Dedek (known for construction of dams for hydroelectric power stations).

The majority of construction works was finished by the end of 1944, performed by 130 hired workers, but there was not enough material and time to finish the protective concrete coating and other installations. The tunnel was nevertheless used by the citizens during the last few months of World War II when there were frequent air–raid warnings. After the war the tunnel was abandoned, but became of interest for a short period again during the Slovene independence war in 1991 – the Kranj civil protection unit re-opened the entrances and restored the shelter.

One of the most interesting is the almost 1300 metre long old city air-raid shelter, an important monument of construction from World War II. The bunker has four entrences – from Jelenov klanec, from the Kokra canyon, from Lajh, and along the staircase from the back of Prešeren’s Theatre. The tunnel starting at Jelenov klanec crosses a conglomerate prominence and then opens up into the Kokra River canyon, which is a nature conservation area.

A long southern extension branches off under the Post Office and leads all the way to Lajh. All tunnels are of approximately equal dimensions, 2 metres wide; only the section under Pungert is slightly branched. They are fortified by a layer of concrete, the unfinished section showing the original conglomerate tunnel. Apart from one smaller chamber there are no larger rooms.

There were similar tunnel projects elsewhere in Kranj during World War II
There were similar tunnel projects elsewhere in Kranj during World War II

Tunnel at Savska cesta road
The tunnel walls are protected by a concrete coating. In some places you can see strow stalactites that have formed on the ceiling and are up to one metre long. The total length of the tunnels is 265 metres. They comprise a concrete tube 2,4 metres in diameter, truncated with a level floor. There are two entrances 50 metres apart to enable factory workers to retreat to safety.

Tunnel next to Kranj railway station
This tunnel is made up of two extensions with two entrances. The total length of the tunnel is 93 metres. The tunnel walls are vaulted with concrete blocks. Drops of water which are saturated with calcium carbonate, seep through the joints and calcite curtains and straw stalactites have been formed in some places. The tunnel is dug out of stratified dolomite with limestone layers. According to the geological map KRANJ L33-65 the rocks in the upper Triassic formation are c. 200 million years old.


Tunnel next to former Sava Kranj factory
The tunnels were built to protect workers at the old Sava Kranj factory, which had one of its plants near the Kokra River canyon. There are two entrances on the right bank of the Kokra River, next to the military bridge. Once there were benches – wooden planks on iron framework – along the walls and electric lighting on the ceiling. During World War II the Germans built several open fire-fighting reservoirs in Kranj, which have all been filled up. On the location of the city fountain (restored in 1995) on Glavni trg Square a large underground reservoir was built in 1943 by the Josip Dedek construction company. It was first filled up with water on 16th January, 1944.

Fire-fighting Reservoir on Glavni trg
Since the underground reservoir is filled to the top, it can be compared to a cave siphon and is therefore accessible only for the most experienced cave divers. The reservoir, which is completely underground, has two narrow open shafts next to the fountain. It is 3,5 metres deep, 4 metres wide and 30 metres long. It contains 310 cubic metres of clean water and could therefore still serve its purpose.

After the war the Kranj firebrigade maintained the reservoir for some time, but with modern technical equipment it has later fallen into disuse.  In 2002 it was researched and documented again by members of the Cave rescue team (Caving club Carnium) and the Water rescue team (Diving club of Kranj).

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries there was a smaller mine in Gorenja Sava at the foothills of Šmarjetna gora, which supplied manganese to the Jesenice ironworks. With the invention of a revolutionary steel strengthening process with manganese in 1872, which changed the steel industry worldwide, the mine has become a part of steel working history. The mine level which is almost 400 metres, has two entrances. The tunnels are up to 5 metres wide. They were equipped with tracks for the pit carts, which were pulled by men or horses. Miners cut through numerous smaller natural caves – shafts in the limestone of Šmarjetna gora – and cave animals spread from the caves into the mine levels; among them a species of endangered cave beetle (Anophthalmus besnicensis), endemic to the surroundings of the Rovnik hill above Besnica near Kranj.

Glavni trg, Kranj
Glavni trg, Kranj

The Tular cave
Tular is a natural cave, which was formed in the Sava conglomerates by a small stream. It was first mentioned already in 1689 by the famous naturalist J.V. Valvasor. The endemic fauna of this cave is very interesting. A subspecies of a small cave beetle (Anophthalmus miklitzi ssp. staudacheri) and a subspecies of a blind cave crustacean (Niphargus ilidžensis ssp. slovenicus) have been described from this cave. In 1944 it was partly walled into an air-raid shelter for the nearby factory.

In 1960 the abandoned shelter was turned into a cave laboratory by speleobiologist Marko Aljančič (1933 – 2007), who populated it with the European blind cave salamander (Proteus anguinus). It is the only cave laboratory in Slovenia and – apart from the cave laboratory in Moulis in France – the only place to breed this endangered cave amphibian in captivity. In the laboratory the ecology and behaviour of the Proteus, mainly its breeding, are studied. Apart from that the laboratory also raises the public awareness of the Proteus as the symbol of the Slovene natural history, with special emphasis on nature conservation. Since visitors could disturb the animals, the laboratory is not open to the public.

The Brezno nad Podblico pothole
The entrance into the pothole above Podblica is located on the eastern slope of the Jelovica plateau, some 100 metres above the village Podblica. The dimensions of the entrance, which opens up in an almost vertical rock wall, are 4 metres by 2 metres. The oval entrance pitch of 10 metres ends in a small chamber, followed by a larger chamber of flowstone, which after 10 metres splits into two tunnels, ending in rubble shortly after. The total depth of the pothole is 35 metres, and the total length 98 metres.

The Jeralovo brezno pothole
The entrance to the Jeralovo brezno pothole was dug open during the Mayday holiday 1972, by members of the Speleological Society of Kranj. Not even the landlord on the Jerala farmhad known of its existence until then. A strong draught was blowing out of a small rift in the rocky slope. After they had enlarged the entrance opening, they found an 80 metres deep and 300 metres long cave. The whole system is made up of three main tunnels and numerous smaller chambers. The entrance is located in the western slope of Rovnik hill above Jerala farm in the village of Njivice. It used to be a sinkhole in Triassic limestone.

The Kranj Tunnels Today
In the 1980s and 1990s the abandoned tunnels at Jelenov klanec and Pungert were used to cultivate . Unfortunately all the dirtiness was left in the tunnels after mushrooms growing had ceased. In 2003 the Speleological Society of Kranj started removing the rubbish. In 2005 they have cleaned a part of the tunnels at Jelenov klanec, and in 2007 they had also cleaned the entrances to the Kokra River canyon. Most of the work was resumed by the Kranj Civil Protection Units: Cave Rescue Unit (Caving Club Carnium), Unit for Provisional Accommodation (Scout Association of Kranj), Water Rescue Unit (Diving club of Kranj), Unit of Rescue Dog Handlers (Rescue Dog Handlers Club of Kranj), Communications Unit (Radio Club of Kranj).

In 2006 and 2007 they removed more than 150 cubic metres of rubbish from the tunnels. The work was performed by volunteers as part of the annual “Let’s Clean Kranj” event, organized by the Scout Association of Kranj. With their work they have paved the way to the revival of the abandoned underground constructions. The Municipality of Kranj, together with the Kranj Tourist Board, the Regional units of the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia, and the Institute of the Republic of Slovenia for Nature Conservation, has decided to tidy and put in order the tunnels.

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Poland’s Jewish Past in a Photographic Exhibition

A photography exhibition documenting the Jewish influence in Poland gets underway in London at the end of the month.  As part of Polska! Year 2009, the event will draw upon the work of British photographer Chris Schwarz to highlight Poland’s Jewish past as well as the influence Jewish culture has on the country today.

The exhibition at the London Jewish Cultural Centre in Golders Green, which starts on 30 July and will run until the end of September, follows 12 years of collaborative working between Chris Schwarz and Professor Jonathan Webber, the UNESCO Chair of Jewish and Interfaith Studies at the University of Birmingham.

For more information about the Polish National Tourist Office visit
For more information on Polska! Year visit

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Poland’s Crucial Role in Cracking Enigma Code

The “Enigma Recaptured” campaign will form part of a drive to highlight Poland’s important role in World War Two.  The Polish National Tourist Office (PNTO) is also organising a very special Polish event at the Buckinghamshire museum to commemorate 70 years since the start of the war.

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park

Along with Polish films, exhibitions, and entertainment several distinguished speakers will talk at the event on 19 July. Topics addressed will include life in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation and of course Poland’s vital efforts in unlocking the secrets of the Enigma puzzle.

Polish input into modern history is a key theme for the PNTO in the 70th anniversary year of the Second World War.  British tourists will be invited to discover places of historical importance in Poland such as Gdansk-Westerplatte where the war began, the Auschwitz concentration camp and once-occupied cities including Warsaw, Krakow and Bydgoszcz.

Enigma Machine
Enigma Machine

Bletchley Park summer (April – October) opening times are as follows:
Monday – Friday 09.30am – 17.00pm
Saturday, Sunday & Bank Holidays 10.30am – 17.00pm

Find out more about Bletchley Park at
For more information about the Polish National Tourist Office visit
This year is Polska! Year in the UK. For more information visit

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Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Cologne, Germany


The Excelsior Hotel Ernst is located in the city centre of Cologne, directly opposite the spectacular cathedral and only two minutes walk from the railway station, local attractions and the Rhine River.  The 142 bedroom hotel is a 5* hotel and a member of ‘The Leading Hotels of the World’.  The hotel boasts two excellent restaurants Hanse Stube and Taku, and tourists interested in sampling some traditional beer and other beverages will find the location ideal for the famous breweries and bars of Cologne.

In 1863, Carl Ernst, “Royal Restorer of the central station”, built the Hotel Ernst.  In 1871, after as few as eight years, he sold the Hotel Ernst to Friedrich Kracht.  Kracht moved from Belgium to Cologne to manage the hotel but he died four years later, at this point his wife and his son, Carl, took over the management of the house.

Wine Cellar
Wine Cellar

It did not take long for the Krachts to successfully integrate into the society of Cologne.  In 1884, the people of Cologne crowned Carl Kracht Prince Carnival.  During this time, the Grand Hotel was already the first choice of prominent guests including the German Emperor William I who observed the completion of Cologne Cathedral from his room in the Hotel Ernst.

In 1889, Carl Kracht went to Zurich where he married Emma Pauline Baur. The Swiss hotelier family Baur possessed both the well-known Baur au Lac and Savoy Baur en Ville in Zurich.  Then, in 1890, one year after his wedding, his mother handed the Hotel Ernst over to him and his sister Hermine Brinkhaus. The siblings founded a limited company but one year later Hermine Brinkhaus withdrew from her position.  Being the only proprietor of Cologne’s Grand Hotel, Carl Kracht and his family lived in Zurich where he managed the Baur au Lac.  In 1905, he appointed Friedrich Reime director of the Hotel Ernst who continued to manage the hotel.

Between 1908 and 1910 the hotel was rapidly pulled down and reopened as five-star Grand Hotel Excelsior Hotel Ernst.  In an era in which running water was the exception, 100 out of 250 rooms were equipped with a bathroom.  In 1918, after the end of the war, the hotel became a headquarter for the British Forces.  During this time the hotel was closed.  After the troops had left in 1926, the Excelsior Hotel Ernst was renovated for a second time.


During World War II, the hotel was closed.  After the war, the Krachts tried to reconstruct the building as soon as possible and never stopped to try to preserve the hotel and its luxurious nature.  In 1986 the hotel was extended by the circular building, Marzellenstrasse/Domprobst Ketzer Strasse. The famous interior designer Count Pilati designed the new rooms, bathrooms and public areas.

In 2000, an exclusive health and spa area for guests was established and the following year, Taku, an Asian restaurant was opened, as was the modern Business Centre.  In 2007, the last renovation took place with 23 new deluxe double rooms, 5 junior suites and 7 executive suites created in the Hanse wing, costing an incredible 7 million Euros.


The hotel currently offers kitchen parties and interactive food demonstrations at Taku.  For those interested in the antiquities in the treasure vaults at the cathedral, the hotel offers exclusive private tours, an opportunity which those staying at other hotels are unable to partake in.  For those visiting Cologne and wishing to indulge a little, the hotel also organises trips by speedboat to the local vineyards on the Rhine, and offsite dinners at local breweries and beer kellers.

The Facts:

142 rooms & suites partially with view of the Cathedral

13 conference rooms with day light
Health and sauna area, Business Center, exclusive antique shop
Rooms: satellite TV, pay TV, price per room includes minibar, safe, wireless-LAN, broadband access, fax connector, air conditioning, bath robes, hair dryer, shaving mirror
Restaurant Hanse Stube: Innovative French cuisine
Restaurant taku: The house of Asian delights
Piano Bar: Premium bar offering a large variety of cigars and live piano music
Service: 24 hour room service, 24 hour reception and concierge, Valet service, luggage service, shoe-cleaning service, conference butler, limousine service, wedding planning

Excelsior Hotel Ernst
Trankgasse 1-5 / Domplatz
D-50667 Köln
Tel +49 (0) 221 270 1
Fax+49 (0) 221 270 3333

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Happy Birthday Slovenia

Slovenia will be celebrating its 18th birthday on June 25th 2009. The country declared independence from Yugoslavia on June 25th 1991.

To mark the country’s coming of age, Slovenia Info have released 18 facts about Slovenia:

1. Slovenia is bordered by four countries; Austria, Italy, Croatia and Hungary

2. Although Slovenia’s total surface area is only around 20,000 km2, it has almost 10,000 km2 of forest

3. Slovenia’s Adriatic coastline is 46.6 kilometres long

4. Over 400 brown bears make their home in Slovenia

5. Slovenia has over 7,000 km of marked mountain trails, with 165 mountain huts and shelters

6. 216 square kilometres of Slovenia is covered in vineyards (Teran being one of my favourite)

7. Triglav National Park is one of the oldest parks in Europe, with the first efforts to protect the area dating back to 1906

8. Slovenia has lots of quirky food festivals including the Salt Makers’ Festival, Cabbage Festival, Chestnut Sunday and Bean Day to name a few.  (My personal favourite is the Blueberry Festival in the town which boasts the name Borovnica (Blueberry)!)

9. In Slovenia, you can pay to stay in a prison cell at the Hostel Celica in Ljubljana

10. The official symbol of Ljubljana is the dragon which was said to have been slayed by Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts)

11. Some scenes from The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian were filmed in Slovenia’s Soca Valley

12. The Lipizzaner horse stud, Lipica, was established in 1580 by the Austrian Archduke Karl II

13. Mount Triglav (2,864m) is the highest mountain in Slovenia and is more than twice the height of Ben Nevis (1,344m)

14. Old Vine in Maribor is over 400 years old and the oldest vine in the world. It still bears between 35 and 55 kilos of red grapes annually from which wine is produced

15. Bled Golf Course is the oldest in Slovenia, dating back to 1937. In 1976, it was host to the first golf tournament in Slovenia. (Personally, I say, sod the golf, go eat Kremschnitte at Park Hotel where this delicious dessert was created!)

16. The Secovlje saltpans are more than 700 years old and have been protected as a nature park since 2001

17. Postojna Cave, part of Slovenia’s Karst region, is the most-visited cave in Europe. It has a network of 20 km of passages, galleries and chambers

18. Couples can still get married in the church on Bled Island. Tradition says that the groom must carry his bride up the 99 steps to ensure a long and happy marriage (this is not compulsory, my brother-in-law and sister did not partake in this particular tradition, let’s just hope their marriage is not doomed!)

Slovenia is still a hidden gem within central Europe with many exciting and varied travel opportunities. The compact country allows holidaymakers to experience a whole range of landscapes and activities just a short distance from each other, including city highlights, a beach break, outdoors activities around the mountains and lakes, and even underground attractions in the Karst region.

For more information about Slovenia visit or call 020 7928 6108.


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Statue Park, Budapest

dsc02882For just 1000 Forints, one can enter the Status Park just outside Budapest in Hungary, a bizarre collection of Soviet status from the Communist regime not just throughout Hungary, but also other former satellite states.

While there are a great number of statues continuing to be restored and the park itself remains unfinished, it is definitely worth a visit if one is staying in Budapest for a few days.

Ordinarily such striking communist symbols would have ended up on a scrap heap, but instead Hungary made the decision to collect the historic and cultural items missing from most other former Communist countries, and used them to create the Statue Park, now home to more than 40 busts, statues and plaques of Lenin, Marx, Belun Kun and ‘heroic’ members of the proletariat.

The sheer scale of the individual monuments is incredible, particularly when one considers some were built as recently at the 1980s.

In order to visit the Statue Park, take tram 19 from 1 Batthyany ter in Buda or tram 49 from V Deak Ferenc ter in Pest or red-numbered bus 7 from V Ferenciek tere in Pest to the terminus at XI Etele ter.  From the square, catch a yellow Volan bus from stand 7 to Diosd-Erd and get off at the fifth stop.





Memento Park

1223 Budapest

Tanu ter 1


Open daily from 10 a.m. until sunset

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