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….