A Ride Through Poland
The Route , at a Glance…
Warszawa, Ruciane-Nida (Mazury), Białystok, Białowieski Park, Zamość, Jarosław,
Nowy Sącz, Zakopane, Kraków, Częstochowa, Łódź, Kazimierz Dolny, Warszawa
July 17th to August 20th, 2005 – 2,350 kms by bike – and a bit more by rail and foot!
Why Poland? A question asked by so many when they hear of my trip. In a nutshell, my parents (who are both deceased now) were born in Poland and emigrated to the UK during WWII. They never returned to their homeland and I only have vague memories of their conversations relating an earlier life in Poland and the inevitable upheaval caused by WWII.
My parents were both from large families which hinted that I had relatives there (somewhere?) that I had never met and this fact had always intrigued me as did the rich history of the country itself. So the prospect of a bicycle tour in Eastern Europe coupled with the possibility of discovering some of my roots seemed to make a good combination. Added to this was the prospect of exploring a country that only last year (2004) had been allowed to join the European Union and was slowly emerging from decades of Communist rule.
I’ll mention here that I have only added a few photos throughout this blog post of my bicycle tour in Poland, but all my images from this trip are available for viewing by clicking this link.
At the end of the trip reports is a summary with some personal conclusions of my ride through Poland.
Once again I took along my Pocketmail device again, and what follows are basically the edited e-mail messages that I sent home daily to family and friends. My moods tend to change from day to day when I’m touring and the daily reports somewhat reflect these idiosyncrasies – read on and take it, as I did, one day at a time…
Day 1 & 2 – Welcome to Warszawa (Warsaw)
My bike in its case and also the large bag of equipment arrived safe and sound at the airport. Wisely, I’d pre-booked a room at a downtown hostel with whom I had confirmed would store my bike case for a few weeks, so I took a taxi to there from the airport. I’m glad that I read my “Lonely Planet Poland” book before I came [in fact, I took the book with me and found it invaluable throughout the trip], because it mentioned the “Pirate Taxis” in Warsaw. Well sure enough, I was intercepted on my way out of the airport terminal by a cab driver – so I asked him how much, and he said 60 Zloty – I told him that his price was too much and went out to the taxi stand. The actual fare ended up at 25 Zloty, plus I gave the driver a 5 Zloty tip – so, half price of what the Poles call the “Mafia” taxis.
Travelling yesterday for 24 hrs – that included hanging around in three airports for extended periods of time – and nine hours time difference produced a restless sleep last night and my body naturally protested today. Regardless, once settled into the hostel Basil helped me put the bike together last night, as I was having such a hard time with my jet lag – fine job we did too! I’m glad that I booked two nights here before setting out. With my bike and gear readied last night, I had today to crawl around Warsaw and even included some sightseeing during my quest for some necessities required for travelling. One item of which was alcohol for my stove, which proved to be a devil to find. I eventually found some at a small paint shop under the name of “Denaturat.” I mentioned to the owner that I had a hard time finding the fuel and he said it would be easier to find away from the city? Apparently the down and outs drink the stuff even though it is poisoned to deter just such consumption – realistically, it wasn’t much cheaper than some brands of cheap Vodka which were readily available everywhere!
The old town of Warsaw is quite spectacular seeing as how the Nazis levelled it over sixty years ago during WWII. The majority of the historic buildings have been rebuilt brick by brick from the rubble left behind, using original brick, stonework and fittings wherever possible – this seems to be an ongoing project even now. Nevertheless, the results are truly spectacular when one has viewed the photographs of how the inner city looked in 1944. Commemorative plaques on many buildings are testaments to the relevance of particular structures during differing timelines of the Warsaw Ghetto and related uprising. I can only add that after coming across the many memorials throughout the city, the realisation that huge numbers of civilians were murdered here during the war is rather disturbing and difficult to digest at times.
I’ll be back in Warsaw just prior to my return and am looking forward to more exploration then.
So I’m ready for the off tomorrow, but just my luck, the weather has taken a turn for the worse here. I kind of figured that some rain and storms were due here, because of the high humidity yesterday when I arrived – reminded me a little of Southern Ontario. Well, off into the rain tomorrow morning regardless – I’ll be heading northeast towards Poland’s lake district, the Great Mazurian Lakes – hopefully it doesn’t rain too much.
Adam K. & (what, raingear already?) Basil.
Day 3 – Warsaw to Ostrołęka – 130 kms
Getting out of Warsaw was as tense a situation as I had figured that it would be, but I waited for the worst of the morning rush to subside before I ventured out onto the “mean streets” dodging the cars, buses, trams whilst trying to keep my wheels out of the tram rail track. Moreover, my jet lag wouldn’t let me move any sooner anyway, as I seem to be having a hard time sleeping – I’m tired at the wrong times and having trouble falling asleep on a night. Funny thing is, Basil seems to be OK!!!
Anyway, I did manage to find a bike path which led me to the correct bridge on which to cross the Wisla (Vistula) River – so that made up for the tram tracks and other hazards that I encountered on my ride out of the city centre.
From the last few days, both walking and cycling, I find many road surfaces to be crappy and the drivers are all speed demons and/or dare devils. The speed limits are posted in kms/hr, but the drivers are exceeding those limits by far – even if you read those limits in miles/hr! Once out of the city and off the main car routes, the roads are narrow with predominantly little to no shoulder – mucho potholes, repairs and road heaves too. Besides continuously glancing at road conditions, I think that I spent more time looking in mirror today than at the road ahead – keeping an eye rearwards to see just how much room those speedy drivers were about to afford me. Although fast, the drivers seemed to be very used to bicycle traffic on the roadway, as they gave me a wide berth when flying by! Nevertheless, traffic was horrendous until after Pultusk (approx. half-way today) then it petered out to just the speeders and maniacs. The worst ones were the (many) oncoming drivers that insisted on passing traffic whilst coming towards me at warp speed, talk about looking death in the face – all I could think about was the Aussie girl cyclist who had just died in a head-on collision with a car during a bike race in another part of Europe! Anyway, I haven’t had to bale out yet, but the finger’s on the ejector seat button constantly!
Otherwise riding mostly on Route 61 today, the scenery was nothing startling; riding through this part of Poland where is relatively flat is a good chance to rubberneck at what the Soviet system has left behind – basically a legacy of hundreds of block style apartment buildings that are utilitarian and nothing else. Added to which, many of these concrete and block boxes are showing their age and there seems to be little funds available to repair or replace these “architectural gems!”
Nevertheless, the Poles seem to be accomplishing “Westernisation” admirably, with cars a plenty – BMW’s and Mercedes abound – those tiny Polish Fiats are hardly evident in and around the larger cities (although, throughout the next few weeks as I toured the countryside, I did see many more of the older cars in less populated regions). The latest fashions – designer low-riser jeans, body parts avec tattoos etc. – are as commonplace here as in Vancouver or New York City – McDonald’s are here, but much more prevalent are KFC and Pizza Hut, giving the pierogi delivery guys on their scooters some stiff competition!
But there is very much evidence of the have and have-nots – the plethora of street stands selling fruit/veg, household appliances and everything in between is evidence of a thriving underground economy. Also, it seems as if the small time farmers all come into the cities to try and sell their wares, on many occasions directly outside grocery stores. On today’s ride, I saw evidence of much farmland on the outskirts of the Warsaw that was for sale and/or subdivision for building plots – lot/acreage for sale signs were very evident.
Ostroleka is my stop for the night, no camping here so I grabbed a room at one of the very few hotels in the area, another block building with tiny rooms and definitely dated decor – but it’s very clean and cosy for my one night’s stay. This was/is an industrial area, so the accommodation for tourists such as myself are sparse and spartan! I hope that I sleep better here tonight, I’m getting sick of laying awake listening to Basil’s snoring – highly disconcerting!
By the way, it didn’t rain today after all, but the forecast is for storms for the next few days – I hope that they’re wrong on that forecast too.
Highlights today… Saw my first Stork and visited my first Skansen (outdoor museum).
Adam K. and (I don’t snore) Basil.
Day 4 – Ostrołęka to Ruciana-Nida – 100 kms
A shorter ride today and I needed it; still had yet another restless night to overcome! And it was pouring rain when I left the hotel, but I had no choice looking at the solid grey skies – possibly ominous for the whole day, I thought to myself.
I had to backtrack a short way along 61 and then took 53 heading north. Once again, the roads were not cyclist-friendly and the rain didn’t help much either. However, the heavy rain petered out after about 20 kms leaving the rest of the day with a combination of wind, some sun and showers.
I rode on 53 for about 85 kms and then took 59 at the town of Rozogi. Then about 22 kms on 59, then east on 58 to my stop here at Ruciana-Nida on Lake Nidzkie. As soon as I turned onto 58 I could tell that I was in a holiday area – accommodation signs were sprouting up everywhere and other advertising related to all sorts of water related activities. Of course restaurants started sprouting up too and the delectable smells as I rode past quickly had my taste buds screaming. So I stopped for lunch and had a plateful of pierogi, barszcz (beet soup for the uninitiated) and cup of tea – wonderful!
Satiated, I arrived a little later here and found the place was a mini-seaside resort area, albeit on a lake. Lots of people around, so I didn’t bother with hunting down some digs, but elected to camp seeing as the rains seemed to be holding off – I might regret it tomorrow, but I think that other options were slim to none anyway. There are lots of cabins here and they’re all full – besides, I was dying to try camping here in Poland for my first time. I’m at lakefront – very windy spot though, but scenic with good views of sailboats constantly crisscrossing the bay.
I saw a bit more of rural Poland today, and caught some glimpses of a past era, such as a horse and cart still doing active farm duty. Many places that I passed through are just dots on a map, yet others are bustling with activity. Lots of small deli style grocery shops everywhere that remind me of the Polish grocery shops that I visited in my youth and similar to the delis that my mother worked in Britain many years ago. I stopped in one today and just enjoyed looking around at the huge variety of what I would consider specialty items outside of Poland – great stuff!
Well, the dinner gong has rung! Off to cook one of my one pot specialties – won’t be as good as lunch was, but edible, I’m sure.
Adam K. & (left on bike, while pierogis were devoured! Typical!) Basil.
Day 5 – Ruciana-Nida to Wizna – 105 kms
Well I was going to ride to Białystok today, but after looking at the map I realised that another 60 kms with no definite digs organised wouldn’t have been much fun. And after today’s ride, I’m glad that I stopped when I did.
The road was no longer flat, but the rolling hills were not the worst of it today. After pouring rain and howling winds all night, the rains ceased this morning for enough time for me to pack up my wet tent and head into town for breaky. After that, I think I was only on the road for thirty minutes before the skies opened up again. Moreover, the skies were almost black; that condition cleared, but it was rolling squalls, thunder and lightning all day. I actually hid under some bushes three times today to escape the very close lightning strikes. And guess what? Yes, headwinds all day, well ok, head/cross winds for half the day and the full Monty for the rest! Needless to say, I was glad to read in my Lonely Planet book of a hostel here in the small village of Wizna. Biebrzanski National Park is nearby, so fortunately accommodations are available in this rural area. I asked at the local store with regards to a local hostel or other accommodation and they directed me here to the “Carski Trakt” instead; I’m glad that I asked at the shop, because I passed a bar with rooms first and probably would have settled there and missed something really neat. This place is part of the growing “Agrotourist” network in Poland, which are like bed & breakfast accommodations, but offer a few more amenities…
When I arrived, I knocked on the door and the very nice lady owner showed me where to park my bike, showed me my super clean room – with bathroom – and then before I could even take the bags off my bike, not to mention the smell off my body, she had my late lunch on the table for me. Lunch in Poland is like dinner at home – a large pot of self-serve soup, followed by fish, potatoes etc. and two pieces of Polish cheesecake (sernik) – that I haven’t had since my mum made it eons ago – all washed down by a pot of tea!! Marvellous! What a find after a tough day in the saddle. Well, ya gotta get lucky sometimes eh?
Even with the crappy weather though, I had some enjoyable riding. I thought that I was in rural Poland for part of yesterday, but today proved to be much more so. After heading east on 58 to Szczuczyn (yeah, you try to say it!), I elected to go south on some smaller roads to try to escape some of the traffic. Good choice, no shoulders, but much more scenic and considerably less traffic. The road surfaces were nothing to scream about though – I even had a section of cobblestones to ride; that was fun! – but the small hamlets that I rode through were not even dots on my map. I will say that the Michelin map that I am using seems very accurate, but I still have to keep a good eye out for place-name signs and directional arrows. The only problem here seems to be the lack of restaurants – no second breaky opportunities – I have to rummage in my food bag for whatever I can find to keep me going. But almost every village has at least one grocery store – sometimes there will be two, three or four, all in block! They mostly sell the same stuff, but I guess that the locals have a certain allegiance to one shop or the other. For the most part they are not like our stores where you help yourself, here you stand in line and the lady behind the counter does the shelf picking. If she decides to chat with someone, you wait – patiently! I remember most stores were like this at one time, but have evolved to the mini-markets that we have today. It’ll happen here too I’m sure, in fact, there are the odd few around now in the larger towns – Warsaw of course seems to be far ahead of the rural communities.
I must mention that everywhere I’ve stayed has been super clean, sometimes very dated, but nevertheless clean. Even the bathrooms at the campground were not the usual grimy examples that I have experienced in Canada and the USA.
Tip of the day… When using Public bathrooms in Poland, make sure that you have your toilet paper with you before you sit down.
Adam K. & (Oh no you don’t) Basil.