Ah, hello dear friends! How I’ve missed you….
No not you, the mountains…. After nearly 1,900km of mostly flat, sometimes dispiriting, riding against a predictable headwind across 6 countries, I can’t begin to explain the sheer relief I felt at finding myself in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains (also known as the Little Carpathians). I’m currently only 50km from the border with Slovakia, my 7th country on this trip…..but more of that later.
Special mention must be made of my Warmshowers host over the last two nights in Krakow. Adam is a veteran of road and off-road riding, with many years of touring experience, covering some 10 countries in the Balkans, and cycling from Poland to Nordcapp, over 5000km, to the most northerly point of Norway (and Europe). These are just two of his many exploits, all of which have been recorded on film, and we spent several hours reliving those experiences. I was mesmerised by the quality of his filming and the landscapes he has travelled through. Click here to sample some of his offerings. Sit back and enjoy them, whether or not you are a cyclist. You will be carried along by the gentle quest to discover new landscapes.
Back to my own journey. As I cruised out of Krakow on dedicated cycle paths, and had begun to climb up from the valley of the River Vistula, I chanced by the oldest Benedictine monastery in Poland, sitting high above the river,
and enveloped in that sense of withdrawal from life that begs you to stay awhile. A Dutch lady I met at the entrance was an habitual visitor, drawn back to Poland year after year.
After 102km, in the late afternoon, I checked into a wayside room, just into the final climb of this segment…
and at some 400 metres above sea level, I decided the night time temperature would be way below the tolerance of my sleeping bag. So once again, the indulgence of a real bed and a chef-prepared meal…..what has happened to the spirit of austerity, you might ask.
…or so I thought. I learned the full force of Polish steely determination when I cycled out to visit the Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory, about 3km out of the centre of Krakow. It was a free entry day and it closed at 16.00. As I negotiated a very tricky route I found a road closure, which sent me on a longish detour. I arrived at precisely 14.35, only to be told the last entry was at 14.30 (because, apparently, you absolutely need 90 minutes to see the permanent exhibition).
“But….but…..but I’ve cycled here, and been delayed by a road closure, and the website said nothing of the last entry at 14.30…..can’t you make just this one exception?”
I won’t bore you with the detail, but I tried various ploys to blag my way in…..I even tried walking past the entrance staff to see if they would notice….even if I’d been Pope Francis himself, they would have barred my way through. So just being any old ‘Francis’ wasn’t going to cut it either….. I’ve now learned the hard way…. don’t mess with Polish museum staff.
But I do love browsing museums, learning about the history of places and their principal characters and, of course, every city will highlight its own positives:
Had there not been a Rome in Italy, Krakow itself would have been Rome.
Wawel Castle, on the top of the hill, is the most beautiful in the country..
But Krakow, like the rest of Poland, suffered disastrously at the hands of, first the Gestapo, then the Soviet KGB….go to the Terror of Krakow exhibition and you’ll need a strong coffee afterwards to calm your nerves.
But then spend an hour in the National Museum to discover Polish works of art of the 19th century, and you’ll come across jewels like this by Jacek Malczewski…
If Gothic and Baroque is your thing, there are more visitable churches than you can shake a stick at. If you need to help purge the demons of the holocaust, go to Auschwitz, or dally in the Jewish quarter of the city and visit the old Synagogue.
Tomorrow I resume my battle with the headwind in search of the foothills of the Tatra mountains, the most westerly peaks of the Carpathian mountain chain. After some 1800km on this journey, the legs will get their first stretch in hill climbing, to give me my first elevated views of landscape.
Tent dried from the overnight dew and packed up, I headed for breakfast in a nearby café, and just about managed to eat one of their small Polish-style hotdogs, but then in came this ‘Uber-Eats’ delivery guy, and he gave me a quick lesson on how to eat two giant-sized ones in quick succession…..and in less than two minutes!
Then later in the day, as I took shelter from the rain, Peter Lee (his English name of course) from Nanjing in China, struck up conversation in almost flawless English, and ended up showing me some of his superb photography shot on his most recent trip to Tibet. He then told me of his upcoming trip back to Tibet, and the 6 week 20,000km journey he will do with a friend in his car, and I ask him: ‘what has happened to the bicycle in China?’.
He looks at me and gives me one of those inscrutable Asian smiles, and proudly says: ‘Ah yes, the bicycle….China has changed a lot….we now have real traffic jams…’
It had to happen. A day of reckoning was due. I thought I’d made a canny move changing my final destination to Bratislava from Prague, and for two days I had cause for celebration. I couldn’t boast having a tailwind, but a crosswind is always going to be a better option than a full-on headwind. However, today the pact with the weather gods has been rescinded and, according to the forecast, I will be paying my dues for the next couple of days. The wind is coming from the south, and staying from the south…..and I am going south. After a reasonable day’s quota of 83km against this 15mph headwind, I arrived at the unpronounceable town of Jedrzejow, discovered its most attractive feature was its railway station, checked on the internet and found there was a train to Krakow in 30 minutes…..it was a no-brainer….a one hour train journey into Krakow and I would be heading to a campsite by the River Vistula (the very same river that runs through Warsaw)…..it was two fingers to the weather gods.Krakow is a place Jenny and I have already visited in winter time, when the Christmas market was in full swing, and the air was filled with the aroma of mulled wine. I’ve already had a kind Warmshowers invitation to stay a further two nights here, so let’s see how the city compares in September. It is universally regarded as the jewel in the crown of Poland.
Ride a bike and learn something new. I have just spent the best part of two days riding through apple orchards, in the Grojec region. Like the olive groves in Spain, they seem to go on forever. But little did I realise that Poland is the biggest apple producer in the EU, and that a full 80% of all its fruit production is in the form of apples. That’s a huge 4 million tonnes of apples every year. Check the origin of the next bag of apples you buy.
I spent last night in a tiny village of 900 inhabitants called Lipie, right in the heart of the apple region, being hosted by a delightful family. Renata, the mother, is a primary school teacher, and her children Olivia and Pawel attend the secondary school next door to their house.
Olivia is passionate about horses, and showed me her collection of 49 equine figurines.
Pawel, who wants to be a chef one day, cooked an excellent pasta bolognese, and then tried to teach me the rules of a card game using the Google translate app….we had a lot of fun with that, but very little success.
85km into my day’s ride, I arrived at Konskie, a delightful little town 160km north of Krakow which really caught my attention….enough in fact to persuade me to stay the night. And when I discovered the temperature was going to drop to just +4 degrees (the comfort limit of my sleeping bag), I decided to take a room, just metres from this signpost…..
….telling me I’m 1,651km from Londyn (about 1000 miles). I wonder if Konskie has joined the ranks of the growing number of towns that claim to be the geographic centre of Europe? I know the Guinness Book of records currently recognises Girija in Lithuania.
One of the many benefits of being a member of the cyclists’ hospitality group Warmshowers has been the open door to meeting people across national and cultural divides, sometimes people with whom you share no language in common. This happened during my two nights in Warsaw.
I was very kindly invited to spend both nights in Warsaw with Olexandr (from Ukraine) and Ira (from Belarus), despite their busy mid-week timetable, and despite the fact that Ira speaks no English (though fluent in Russian and Polish). Olexandr, on the other hand, speaks four languages very well, and has a working knowledge of two others. Another important ingredient in their lives is the fact that Ira is expecting their first child in January. It was a delight for me to sleep on their couch, and learn so much about them as people, and as expatriate residents in Poland.
When I planned this journey, I left open a couple of options, and one was my final destination. My first choice was Prague, which geographically would be WSW from Warsaw.. The other was Bratislava in Slovakia, which is going more southerly from Warsaw, swinging to the SW in Slovakia. As you can see from the title of this post, I have decided to head south to Krakow. So, what has been the catalyst for me taking option 2?
Well, you have probably guessed the wind direction might have something to do with it. I reckon I have had more than my fair share of strong headwinds on this journey, and I know the weather gods have had it in for me. Every time I have changed direction, the wind has too….but, crucially, never in my favour. Looking ahead, if the BBC weather app has got it right, the wind should be roughly from the west in the next several days, which doesn’t mean a tailwind as I head south, but more of a crosswind. The only way to get a tailwind behind me would be to head due east to the Ukraine…..and that is not an option on the table.
And finally, had I been a few cms taller, and not seen this ‘no right turn’ sign coming, I would most certainly have incurred a painful head injury….I almost excused them the dangerous blunder when I saw the warning followed by an exclamation mark (!) assuming they were wsrning of the danger, but no such luck. When I looked it up on the translation app. this is what I got…..
…the warning was simply to alert me the cycle path was about to join the road. Hey ho…..
But I have to say I was very impressed with the network of cycle-paths in Warsaw. It took me 20km to clear the city traffic this morning, but I never once had to cycle amongst the traffic, always on segregated cycle routes. The irony is that, had the city not been destroyed and rebuilt with wider streets and avenues, there would never have been the space to develop the cycle network. Hmm, I think there is a message in this for UK cities…..I’ll leave you to figure it out.
Warsaw is a hugely impressive place, but it is largely down to its two separate histories: before WW2 and after. Every museum I’ve visited (and there are not a few) and every street and square I’ve walked through have constantly referenced the ‘before and after’ periods of the war, and their impact on the very character of the city, indeed, the very character of the nation has been considerable.
Bear in mind that Poland had been a monarchy until the end of the 18th century, then it had been occupied variously by other nations, until it lost its new-found independence when the Germans moved in, in 1939. By the end of the war, it had been 90% razed to the ground by the Germans as a reprisal for non-cooperation, and had lost most of its population, especially the Jews. So all historical references hinge around both before and after the war and, frankly, it’s resurgence from the ashes has been truly impressive.
As I write these few words sitting in the courtyard of the Royal Castle, a guide is talking to her group and emphasising, probably not for the first time, that Warsaw had been completely destroyed in the war. The locals are genuinely proud of their history of survival, and they are eager to tell you.
So tomorrow I head out for the next leg of my journey, and my direction just may be governed by the direction of the wind…..watch this space….
Although I carry a couple of Garmins, I find I rarely use them, preferring Googlemaps for my day-to-day planning. And like most cyclists, I like to use the cycling option, but in the three Baltic countries, it was not available. But it is in Poland..but that’s a potential problem. Let me explain….
I chose the cycling option for yesterday’s route, and found myself on a smooth narrow country road with no traffic. Cycling bliss. But I should have suspected something was not quite right….you know the old adage: if something appears too good to be true, it usually is. My perfect country road stopped abruptly, and continued (not even as a dirt track) but as a sandy track….so sandy, in fact, it would have needed 3″ fat bike tyres. What Google’s algorithm regards as rideable has to be interpreted in very broad terms ie. broad tyres.
When I eventually secured a data dignal on my phone, I switched over to car routing, which has the benefit of keeping me on asphalt, but sometimes the same asphalt as heavy commercial traffic. So I quickly scanned my paper map, then used the car option to keep me on the asphalt, but had to accept that sometimes I had to share space with heavy traffic, for want of any other road in the area. That happened on the final 25km of the route. With no shoulder at all for the cyclist, it was a bit nervy at times.
At one of the service stations I stopped at to find some food, Piotr heard me talking to Jenny on the phone, and came over to chat afterwards. His English was very good, but then he had spent 17 years in the UK, and only recently settled back in Poland with his new wife, and a baby on the way. He was fascinated by my journey….and offered me a free coffee so he could delay my departure and chat a little more.
I told him he was unusual in being able to speak English, because most Polish people (even amongst the under 30s) cannot (or simply won’t) speak it. After I watched a bit of their TV the other night, I discovered they voice-over all English-speaking programmes instead of subtitling them, thus losing valuable exposure to English as it is spoken. But then, of course, why should I, an Englishman, be expecting everyone else to speak to me in English….?
So here’s a start to Polish lesson number 1:
And lesson number 2:
Last night I stayed at an Agrituristika place deep in the forest, and just a day’s ride from the infamous extermination camp at Treblinka…
Life in Poland on a Sunday is extraordinary. In most countries, people would be about enjoying their free time, family time, hobby and sport time….in Poland, however, everyone is in their Sunday best, either coming from or going to Church, and invariably ending up in a restaurant for lunch.
People are constantly on the move, in groups, walking with a purpose…..there is a buzz. People are animated, chatting as they go along…..but it is obvious, everything hinges around church attendance, and masses seem to be on offer almost every hour of the day.
Poland is officially 95% Catholic, with a declared attendance rate of over 60%, probably the most observant country in Europe. This contrasts sharply with one of its neighbours, the Czech Republic, which appears to be the least observant country, not just in Europe, but the world.
In one small town, I saw a group of 4 clerics heading towards the church at 1.30pm….and there are probably more than that serving a relatively small community. In the UK, 6-7 villages will be lucky if they share one vicar amongst them.
The road I was following today changed its status at one point, and banned people like me on a bike. I was ushered onto this…
…which was rendered as this on the translation app…..
….and turned out to be a real mixture of gravel, cobbles and asphalt.
But you will, no doubt, be pleased you are now enlightened about the following crucial elements of digital life
…and I defy you to correctly pronounce the name of the village I spent last night in….
The dew had been so heavy during the night that I had the tent hanging over the children’s play equipment outside the restaurant for an hour this morning….and no statues this time.
When I got to the Polish border, it was another non-event, only this little sign to give away the secret.
But crucially, there was nowhere to get some zloty, the Polish currency, and as I write this, I still have no currency. These days, of course, it’s not so vital with the predominance of card-only transactions. But fear not, this man will not starve.
After 112km, I finally ended up in a town called Augustow, some 50km into Poland, pitched up in a distant campsite by a lake, and met Wolfgang from Cologne,
who is currently riding Poland’s Eastern Border Trail, some 2000km long of mainly off-road. He says the track surface is frequently rough, but he likes the traffic-free environment, despite the shorter distances covered each day.