Most of the way through a five-hour layover at Chicago O'Hare and I'm already dragging. I feel like most of the day is already behind me … and I guess it is since it's 9 pm, but I still have a hop across the big pond to London, another layover of a couple hours and then the final leg to Warsaw, Poland. "… and miles to go before I sleep." Well, I suppose I will get a bit of a snooze on the flight though I generally don't sleep much on a plane.
I've already had one minor adventure today as I took the city bus for the first time instead of a calling a taxi to get to the airport. It worked out well except that I barely missed my connecting bus (the schedule showed I had a two-minute connection). I saw my bus as we entered our parking spot, but it was leaving as I debussed and I didn't want to run to catch it. I had given myself plenty of time so no harm done. It did remind me, though, how impressed I was with the precision of the Swiss train schedule when I flew back to Europe to catch the Odyssey tour after attending son Joe's college graduation. I suspect I would've easily made a two-minute connection there.
28 Jul 09, Tuesday 3:30 pm GMT, on the plane to Warsaw
We're streaking to Warsaw. I have felt like a somnambulist most of the time since Chicago. I'm surprised I haven't sustained whiplash in the waiting areas where the chairs have no headrests. I gave up trying to continue this journal in Chicago, but now feel revived by a decent in-flight snack after leaving London. I wonder how British Airways (and other foreign carriers I have flown in the past few years) continue to afford the food service while U.S. airlines have cut the "frills" on domestic flights. <Coincidently, when I talked to Stewart about this a few days later, he said that this coming Monday, BA was curtailing snacks on domestic flights under two hours. However, when I returned to London a month later, I still got a small sandwich so I'm not sure what the current situation is regarding this.>
Although I snagged window seats on all three legs, most of the way has been obscured by thick cloud cover. One exception was coming into O'Hare. The flight path arced us around the city center with the tall buildings just off the left wing acting as one focus of a great parabola. It was a great view with the added treat of a beautiful lakefront with sail and motor boats moored in neat rows lining two large man-made harbors. But I couldn't help but wonder why this flight path is even allowed after 9-11 … or, for that matter, before. An inopportune flight problem could be catastrophic. After all we whipsawed back inland for some distance before we landed - I could barely see the city's skyline as we landed. I can't imagine it is for the viewing pleasure of the passengers. I was reminded of a similar arc around Mount Rainier last year flying into Seattle. Maybe both landmarks are considered too convenient for pilots not to use in a crowded sky.
Except for a short stretch until we gained altitude, London was in heavy scattered cloud cover exposing only glimpses of their checkerboard landscape which always seems somehow fresh and familiar. Could it be an atavistic urge, a distant, genetically remembered sense of homeland which surprised me on my first visit to Western Europe and Great Britain and ambushes me again on each return?
The clouds did clear at the channel and stayed clear with only few laden vessels of commerce in sight until we reached the shores of the Netherlands if the in-flight route map is accurate. The terrain revealed between clouds is certainly flat enough. This is the first time I've gotten a consistent view across the channel. It appears no more than a wide river on a world map which belies its effectiveness as a barrier from England's enemies even as late, and as significant, as World War II. I'm currently reading a 13th century historical novel about a (perhaps) ancestor, Simon de Montfort who makes various perilous crossings of the channel. It reminds one of the dangers in crossing such a wide expanse, especially in a ship at the mercy of the winds.
We're about three hundred out of Warsaw now, probably near the historically amorphous border separating Germany and Poland, but I'll leave that topic and how I happen to be going to Poland for when I'm not so muddled.
I have plenty of time to recover on this trip as my biking partner doesn't show up until Thursday evening and biking doesn't commence until Saturday. Right now, I just have to be clear-headed enough to find my checked pack, negotiate Polish customs, obtain some coin of the realm (zlotys, abbreviated zl or PLN), and hire a "legitimate" taxi to my hotel in downtown Warsaw. "… ah, to sleep, perchance to dream."
Warsaw, Poland, 7:30 pm
It was 7 pm before I checked into the Hotel Ibis in downtown Warsaw. We left London quite a bit late. Before I crash for the night I want to give first impressions.
The Polish countryside coming into Warsaw was green and much like I've seen elsewhere in Europe. Once we get into the country it should be pleasant riding. A thick forest lies just on the outskirts of the city. When I got to my room I identified it from my guide map as most likely Kampinos National Park which stretches about forty kilometers northwest of the city boundary. From the air it looks impenetrable, the kind of place Hansel and Gretel could get lost in and where Little Red Riding Hood might run into a wolf. On the outskirts of the main city center I saw quite a few nice looking subdivisions and apartment complexes with the look-alike architecture often seen in the States. Warsaw appears to have two relatively built-up urban areas separated by some distance, but one had much higher buildings.
As soon as we landed it began sprinkling and by the time we arrived at the gate, it was raining hard. I got a shock as I stood to leave the plane. I glanced toward the back of the plane and there, waiting to disembark, was Lech Walesa, the one-time head of Solidarity and President of Poland from 1990-95 and darling of lovers of democracy everywhere. Of course, it wasn't Lech, just one of his many Doppelgängers in Poland. The Lech look, shaggy mustache and longish hair, must be very popular still.
The processing to enter the country was no more than a quick look at my passport. I am constantly surprised at how laissez faire other governments are compared to the U.S. and Britain in this regard. I found a ubiquitous ATM (called bankomaty here) and caught a hassle-free taxi ride to the hotel. So far all the paper bills I've seen from the ATM and change from the cab have been crisp, like new, and the coins, even two dated 1995, are shiny and unworn. I'm not sure what that tells me, if anything, but it is curious and merits watching.
It stopped raining before I left the airport, but the streets were wet. I saw several bicyclists on the side streets and a couple more that looked like they were on a bike path (none with helmets). Piotr (I'll get to him later) told us it would be best to bike out of Warsaw early either Saturday or Sunday morning, but that this would be our worst stretch concerning traffic. The next two days I plan to see a bit of Warsaw, but first I suspect I'll sleep like the dead for a good six hours.
The room is functional and more than I had hoped to pay. The ATM had run out of receipt paper so I don't know yet what the going rate for a zloty (the Polish dollar equivalent) is yet; I'm expecting about three to one. The room has a low queen-sized bed, a hardwood floor (no carpeting), a TV, a functional bathroom - in short everything I might need for the next four nights. One ominous sign in both Polish and English states, "in order to avoid insects please do not open the window," and I've already killed a couple of gnat-like insects. We'll see how this develops.
29 Jul 09, Wednesday 4 pm, Warsaw
Before I continue my trip narrative, I should explain how and why I am here in the first place as Poland was not at the top of my destination list. A couple years ago on my Orient Express bike trip from Paris to Istanbul, the tour company had hired a young Pole as their bike mechanic and trail marker. His name is Piotr and he told us that he planned to offer a tour of Poland on his own soon. Last summer was his maiden tour, and it went very well. Friends I had made on the O.E. trip participated in it and gave Piotr and his tour high marks. I would've gone then except my summer was uncertain, and I would've missed the first couple weeks of school in any case.
So this year after deciding to take the fall semester off, I signed up for the trip and got airline tickets. In the spring, Piotr realized many people were hunkering down because of the economy and not signing up for exotic bike trips, and so he cancelled the tour. At that point, since I was already holding plane tickets to Warsaw, I was faced with a decision of what to do when I received an e-mail from a guy named Stewart who had also signed up for Piotr's tour and who stated he was still interested in doing the trip self-supported. I immediately e-mailed him back to say I was interested.
I thought I recognized Stewart's name from the O.E. tour two summers ago though we had not ridden together much. If that wasn't coincidence enough, I found out that Dan Kirby, a name you might remember from reading about my world Odyssey trip or my Tunisia trip because he was my riding buddy on both, had also met Stewart on last summer's O.E. It seems Stewart had made the trip twice. Anyway, he and Dan became good riding buds. And, if that wasn't enough of a coincidence, a third guy named Rick e-mailed Stewart and me that he was also interested in our self-supported trip and I recognized his name too! I had taken a tour with him to Tunisia two summers ago. Rick eventually cancelled this trip for health reasons, but even so, what are the odds?
Anyway, Piotr offered us whatever help we needed to do the trip. He e-mailed us route maps and directions and lots of advice. I'm renting a bike that's a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike from his dad who runs a bike shop in Gdansk and Stewart is renting a one-wheel bob (or third wheel), essentially a trailer for the bike. Piotr will be here on Friday night to give us a send-off and I'm also hoping to see him when we get to Gdansk, our first major break.
So Stewart and I are going to do this thing or at least give it a good try. He arrives tomorrow evening to get a day's rest before we move out for points north on Saturday morning.
Now, back to the narrative… It stays light much later in this northern clime which is at the same latitude as southern Canada, but my head hit the pillow at 9 pm last night. As my body began adjusting itself to Poland's diurnal cycle, I slept hard between multiple clock checks so my brain could convince my body that it was okay to go back to sleep some more.
The hotel breakfast buffet was reminiscent of Scandinavia and helped to remind me how much closer Poland is to the countries to the north than to the countries south. They had a respectable spread of cold cuts, a very nice brie, hotdog-like sausages, an assortment of hearty breads and rolls, a variety of pickled items (e.g., herring, sauerkraut, bell pepper strips, and, well, pickles), but they also had a mixture of cereals, yogurt, jams, Nutella (a chocolate-hazel nut spread that is popular in Europe), juices, coffee, tea, and such. I must say it was hearty; it's nearly 5 pm and I'm only now getting a bit peckish after my 6:30 am breakfast.
From the time I walked out of the hotel this morning I was assaulted by the shrill cry of squadrons of swifts racing among the roof tops in pursuit of their morning feed. I immediately recognized the cry as the same species I heard every day in Tunis two years ago. It was like being greeted by old friends.
My "as planned" day began by walking south through Warsaw's Old Town which is a mere kilometer from the hotel to find a city tour office to see if walking tours are offered and then to continue south to spend most of the day in the National Museum. I executed the plan with the precision of a conditioned tourist. I found the city offers no waking tours but has two companies that offer city tours by bus with stops to visit key sites on foot. I signed up for a tour tomorrow despite its rather steep cost and my experience with bus tours being somewhat insipid compared to a good city walking tour. By ratcheting my expectations low I hope to be pleasantly surprised on the morrow.
While walking, I again suffered the difficulties of a traveler with limited linguistic skills … trying to read street signs. On the positive side, Warsaw has excellent signage - seldom does a street corner not provide all street names. However, except in places where I don't know the alphabet (like Cyrillic or Chinese characters), Poland might be my biggest challenge. The street names are very long, for instance, "Krakowskie Prsec Miesche" or "Swietokazyska" or "Al. Niepodleglosco" or even "Herbata C. Hoovea" which I saw today. It sure makes you appreciate street names like "Elm," "Oak," or "Gold."
I proceeded to the National Museum only to find it closed for renovations. Limited access is currently provided to pre-booked groups or individuals on weekends. Since I fit neither category I was out of luck, but I quickly checked my notes and decided to stick my nose into the Polish Army Museum adjacent to the National Museum, then walk back to Old Town to see the Warsaw History Museum and, if time permitted, to check out the Archeological Museum.
I thought the Army Museum would be a quick look at tanks and planes and such in a large courtyard, but found the inside museum to be free on Wednesdays so I took a look there as well. The contents proved more interesting than expected, and I spent enough time to rule out a later trip to the Archeological Museum. The museum has a remarkable collection of old weapons: pikes, battle axes, broad swords, and various other incarnations of hacking tools. When you see the genuine articles and not the silvery, gleaming brilliance depicted in the movies, it drives home the gruesome nature of hand to hand combat as a way to wage war. If the displays of these weapons don't dim the luster of heroic battle, then the large paintings, some covering entire walls, showing battle scenes in which these very tools of war are being wielded to evil effect will. One inevitable question raised by this display is: how did they ever convince so many men to fight in these battles? The carnage and gore must have been immense, immediate and sickening. I can't believe that "testosterone" is a satisfactory answer … at least not after a man's first experience in such a battle. If he survived intact, a thinking man would realize that in such a melee, survival is certainly a matter of luck much more than superior skill or weaponry. A second question that comes to mind after seeing actual battle gear including full armor sets and massive swords, axes, etc. is: would a combatant have a better chance of survival and effectiveness in battle if he shunned the heavy armor and weapons for flexibility and agility. It seems that against a heavily armed and armored foe, a man with a lighter sword, pike, axe and minimal armor could simply avoid the clumsy attacks of the enemy and strike at will. Of course, the chaos of battle would probably dictate that a random blow from the surrounding participants would eventually do you in. But this in turn raised a third question: how did a man effectively handle some of these weapons? I saw a few massive two-handed swords I'm not sure I could even pick up and hold level outright, let alone wield against a foe. If you swung and hit something, it would reverberate throughout your body. Five swings and you'd be too tired to pick it off the ground. These fellows must have had wrists and forearms the size of my thighs … and some of these battles went on for hours!
Oops, sorry. I guess I got diverted… Anyway, the museum had maybe the best collection of older weaponry I have seen. The modern warfare section didn't hold much interest for me.
The Warsaw History Museum was also interesting. It is located in what might have been an old hotel right on the main square in Old Town. After a preliminary look on the ground floor which had an exhibit covering the heady days in 1980 when democracy, on the shoulders of Solidarity, took the country by storm, the arrowed path takes you on a chronological journey through Warsaw's past as you wind your way, floor by floor, up the five or six stories. Rather short shrift is given to the modern period after WW II (except for the exciting 1980s). Much of the text in both museums had English translations which, of course, added to the interest for me.
I'll note here that Hitler's armies razed Warsaw before they eventually retreated. The Lonely Planet guide stated that about 85% of the town was destroyed. Some thought it would be better to just move the capital to a new town, but instead the decision was made to rebuild. Almost all of Old Town was rebuilt after WW II, but it was done faithfully such that it was chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.
For my first evening meal in Poland, I visited several restaurants, most with menus posted outside with English translations, and finally picked one just outside the old walled city with mixed results. I tried a traditional soup called zurek which I had highlighted during my research as a "must try" dish. It consists of a broth soured by a mixture of rye and water left to ferment for a few days and also with slices of sausage and half a hard-boiled egg - very tasty. For my main dish, I choose pork in a mushroom sauce with a side of heavy noodles that reminded me of the spätzel I liked so much in Germany on the Orient Express ride. The pork was a nice piece of meat but would have been better without the insipid mushroom sauce with slimy mushrooms.
Before I leave the topic of restaurants, I've mentioned in other writings the chuckles you find in mistranslation. Within minutes of examining menus, I not only found typical errors such as "roosted salmon" which are easily deciphered, but I also found three examples that leave you guessing: salad with rocket and Parma ham; salad with fried stones; and lettuce with cancer (maybe crab?). Are you salivating yet?
One last note for today: the Dali Lama was in Warsaw today. A large screen had been placed outside the building in old town where he was speaking which showed him giving his speech but oddly had no sound. I don't know the occasion.
30 Jul 2009, Thursday 6 pm, Warsaw
Today was a bus tour day followed by a visit to certain "must see" sites on foot since I realized that Stewart and I might spend tomorrow readying ourselves for our trip. He should be showing up any minute, but I'll begin the day's summary while awaiting him in the lobby.
Our tour was a small group: three Aussies from Sydney, a couple of ladies from Sweden, the tour leader and me. We first rode through the one-time Jewish ghetto and stopped at a memorial. The story is horrific. Before WW II about one third of Warsaw's population was Jewish, around 380,000 people, more than any city in the world other than New York City. Previously, Jews had migrated to Poland from other parts of Europe due to the Polish government's lenient policy towards other religions. When the Germans took the city they erected a nine-foot wall around the two parts of the ghetto and Jews throughout the city were crammed in with almost unbelievable population densities. By the middle of 1942, even before deportation was begun, disease and starvation took an estimated 100,000 people.
<Breaking news! I've just had a real surprise. Stewart arrived and he is not the Stewart I know! Somehow I got my wires crossed. This Stewart rode the Orient Express both the year before and the year after I rode it. Like the Stewart I met on the O.E., he is from Great Britain, but from England and not Scotland.>
Now to continue the narrative … That summer (1942), the Nazis began transporting the first of what eventually totaled 300,000 Jews to the Treblinka death camp. In April 1943, final liquidation of the remaining Jews in the ghetto was begun. Those that remained fought back with the fervor of the damned. The Germans dropped incendiary bombs and buried/bombed the ghetto to rubble, killing or capturing the remaining Jews. Except for isolated bits of wall nothing remained but rubble. Today, except for the memorial, little remains to testify to that level of destruction - it looks like any other neighborhood with houses and parks, business and pubs.
Our next stop was Lazienki Park. On the way our guide pointed out numerous foreign embassies, most ensconced in beautiful, former palaces, except of course for the U.S. embassy. She said the U.S. had razed the palace on its grounds because it was too small and had built (what I had to agree was) a big, ugly building completely out of style with the neighborhood it's in. She also pointed out the towering Palace of Culture and Science, a gift, she said sardonically, from Stalin, one that Poland could not refuse. This huge building is the tallest in Warsaw and dominates the city's skyline. She told us that many Poles hoped the commercial skyscraper built just down the street from the palace would be taller, but it falls a few stories short.
Lazienki Park or Lazienki Kolewskie was on my pre-trip "to see" list so I was happy to take a stroll from one side to the other. The park's name means "royal bathhouse," a nickname given by the townspeople when the complex was built because of the extravagant baths the king had installed. When the site became a park, the name stuck. The park is beautiful with a mature, open forest of mixed deciduous trees, several loud peacocks, friendly (greedy) red squirrels, blue tits headlining a long bird list, several monuments to famous personages (including Chopin), several randy stone satyrs, and strict rules about noise, jogging and other "rough" activities to maintain the air of peace and tranquility.
The park boasts a couple more palaces (a word I've redefined for Poland as including less imposing edifices than what the word normally connotes), but the building that has the best back story is the hunting lodge. Evidently, it was used in the past by the government for important summits, including Henry Kissinger meeting with a Chinese delegation during the Nixon years. The story goes that once the meeting began, the two parties realized the possibility that the Polish secret police (no doubt under orders from Moscow) had bugged the meeting room, and so they began to push questions and answers across the table on written scraps of paper. When the Polish press got word of this, the tactic was immediately dubbed "ping pong diplomacy," punning the exchange of ping pong teams between China and the U.S. during this same period.
From Lazienki Park we crossed the Vistula River which divides Warsaw and visited the eastern part of the city called the Praga district where we saw an old street much as it would have looked pre-WW II. In fact Roman Polanski filmed parts of his Academy Award winning The Pianist in Praga. There is a reason the eastern part of Warsaw was not damaged as much as the western part, and it has everything to do with a monument there nicknamed the "Soviet Sleepers" which depicts several Soviet soldiers standing guard, but looking like their eyes are closed. It seems that while the Germans were wreaking their vengeance on the Poles of Warsaw for their dramatic uprising near the end of the war, the Soviets were camped just across the river in Praga. Stalin, realizing that patriotic Poles were better dead than alive for his purposes, gave the order to stand down and not help the Polish resistance. As a result, Warsaw was devastated as reported above and most Polish resistance leaders were killed.
We crossed the Vistula back to the western side and drove to Old Town for a walking tour. Although I had already crossed Old Town several times on my own, our guide provided better context than my guide book. Although Old Town has been almost completely rebuilt, including the Royal Castle, she showed us places where the old poked through. She told us that after WW II, Poland had no real factories or industry. Therefore, in Old Town among other places, the inhabitants used what was left of the walls, salvaged what was usable from the rubble, and painstakingly reconstructed many, if not most, of the buildings as they had been before the war. The authenticity was ensured by using original photographs and drawings and particularly through a series of paintings by a painter called Canaletto (aka Bernardo Bellotto) which were commissioned by the king in the eighteenth century. As an example, the guide showed us a copy of a painting next to a photograph of a reconstructed house; the resemblance was remarkable.
Earlier in the tour, the guide had mentioned that discussions are often held as to whether resisting the Germans like the Poles did was better than immediately conceding like the Czechs. Obviously, the Poles are extremely proud of their initial fight against the Nazi invasion, their continued resistance throughout the war, and their Warsaw uprising as the Nazis began their retreat. However, I pointed out that Prague sustained essentially no damage during WW II. I suspect this particular argument will never be finished.
Lastly, as we ended the tour, the guide pointed out the house where Maria Curie was born. She wanted to ensure we all knew that, although Madam Curie married a Frenchman and adopted his surname, this two-time Nobel Prize winning physicist was a Polish woman through and through.
After a stop at my hotel room to freshen up, I sallied forth again to hit a few places I had previously missed. I stopped to photograph a stark Warsaw Uprising monument, again to photograph the monument of the Little Insurgent (a child runner during the uprising), and a monument of Nicholas Copernicus of whom the Poles say, he "stopped the sun and moved the earth." I poked my nose into St. Anne's church considered the most ornate in Warsaw and Holy Cross Church where is entombed Frédéric Chopin's heart (the rest of him is buried in Paris). I jogged west to view the permanently guarded Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Saxon Park and then east almost to the Vistula to relax in a large rooftop garden above the university library which gave a grand view of Old Town to the north, Praga to the east, and Warsaw's modern hub to the west as well as glimpses down into the library itself before walking back to the hotel to relax and await Stewart.
31 Jul 09, Friday 6 pm, Warsaw
We had a leisurely day, mainly just waiting for Piotr to arrive in the evening. We did take a stroll through Old Town and on a whim walked to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where we were just in time to see a small military contingent in full honor guard regalia with rifles, bugle, etc. march in and form two lines in front of the monument. Eventually diplomatic cars pulled up and out stepped what we later found was a Slovakian foreign official with local rep who proceeded to place a wreath (in Slovakian national colors) at the tomb. Then the Slovakian official was provided an explanation of the tomb by a Polish officer through a translator. This scene was repeated twice more with a Bangladeshi official and then by a Jordanian official - all done with proper pomp and circumstance.
When Piotr arrived, he told us tomorrow is a memorial day for the uprising and, in fact, walking to supper in Old Town we passed through quite a crowd blocking a major street as they listened to a speech at a memorial to the uprising just three blocks from the hotel. Stewart and I had passed by the same memorial last night where a smaller crowd was in attendance at another uprising ceremony. The Poles memories of WW II burn much brighter than ours in the U.S.
Piotr appeared much as I remembered him. He is engaged to be married next spring and plans to quit his current job to take over his father's bike shop with his brother. Piotr has not spent much time in Warsaw, but did know of a good place to get pierogies, one of the national dishes so we had good food to compliment lively conversation as we got caught up on each others' exploits since we had last met.
My cross bike looks good. It has twenty-one gears, front shocks and even fenders, a kickstand and a bell. Piotr and I must have crossed wires in our e-mails as he did not bring panniers as I expected. That will slow us down getting out of town tomorrow as I'll need to wait for the bike shop to open at 10 am to buy panniers. I got the okay to leave my backpack in the hotel's luggage closet until we return, and Stewart will leave his bike box. It looks like we are set to go, but we will be getting a slow start. On a 131 kilometer day, it will make a difference.
1 Aug 09, Saturday 9:45 pm, Makow Maz., 105.7 km
Today began as a bit of a goat rope. We had a leisurely, late breakfast because the bike shop didn't open until 10 am. I decided to pump up my tires, both of which were very soft (they're "slick" mountain bike tires used for road travel). I pumped the first one hard, but couldn't get air into the front tire. I finally realized a portion of the pump's thread had broken off leaving the pump useless.
We walked to the bike shop where I bought the only pannier set they had. It has two side bags and one across the top that zips and ties to the side bags, but did not seem very heavy duty, especially the zippers which inevitably have problems with road grime. I also bought a decent pump to replace the broken one. We then returned to the hotel where I quickly began packing my kit into the bags. I got everything in, but just barely - the capacity was deceiving. In pulling tight one of the plastic buckles, it broke so I ended up tying it off. I was beginning to feel a bit frustrated. <Actually, the panniers worked very well the rest of the trip and stood up to the heavy use better than I expected.>
Finally, we were off on our longest stage of the trip at 11 am. We navigated out of the city with no real problems. We utilized several bike paths running along the road as the safer option, made a couple of wrong turns that added maybe 4 km and 10 km, but overall I was satisfied and frankly relieved that we were finding the route. The traffic was bad in places, and some roads were narrow causing overtaking cars to wait for oncoming traffic to clear, but overall the drivers were courteous and gave us plenty of room with no significant exceptions. I told Stewart I would not ride similar roads in the States. When I said this, it was the more aggressive U.S. drivers on my mind, but later I realized there was another component to factor in: most cars in the U.S. take up much more of the lane than Polish cars so inevitably you feel more threatened. On this first day, many of the roads had good surfaces, but we also hit some bad stretches. Overall though, we are finding this trip to be doable.
Stewart began tiring and slowing before we were halfway. He has been traveling for work and has not ridden for three weeks. There's little reason to believe he's not fit for the trip for he did the Orient Express and Silk Road trips back to back - that's Paris to Beijing! - last summer among other major tours, so it's just a matter of taking it easy and working into it. I had the good fortune to have a good three weeks to prepare for this trip by increasing my cycling at home.
So we took a few breaks and talked about possibly cutting today short and making it up either tomorrow or over the next week as we pedal to Gdansk, our first break day city. Consulting the maps, there was a larger town (based solely on the map's type size) about 30 km north of Pultask so we set our sights on Makow Maz. (This is where we are as I write this).
When we arrived in late afternoon, we noted a rustic hotel several kilometers before reaching Makow Maz. but continued into town, stopping at a grocery store for drinks (not cold unfortunately) before continuing to the outskirts as we looked for a hotel we had seen advertised on a billboard. We finally found it further north than we had expected and with a wedding reception in full swing. Upon inquiry, we found the hotel was full and so had to retrace our path several kilometers to the hotel we had passed earlier. There appeared no other options.
This small hotel had its own restaurant and was located down a quiet lane - a very pretty setting for our first night on the road. Our rooms were a pleasant surprise, better appointed than our Warsaw rooms at less than half the price. We had the restaurant to ourselves and had a tasty meal of beef medallions in a mushroom sauce with thick noodles and a large salad. We were content and happy.
Tomorrow will be a long day again depending on how far we decide to go. If we ride to the next stop on Piotr's tour route, Ruciane-Nida, the distance is 130 km. However, even though breakfast doesn't begin until 9 am on Sunday, we should still leave a good hour earlier than today.
As far as biking today, much of the route was rural with pretty countryside. Hay is now being harvested (I don't know if they have more than one cutting here), the wheat and other grains stand tall and the few patches of corn looked healthy. Everything is very green. It reminds me of rural Indiana except for the housing architecture. I forfeited the opportunity to highlight a typical farm house with the late afternoon sun at my back burnishing the wheat field in the foreground a marvelous gold. I was reminded of Andrew Wyeth's evocative painting, Christina's World, that Lonna and I once had in our living room. I should have stopped for the photo as I could have easily caught up to Stewart at that point and kicked myself as soon as I passed it up. Hopefully other opportunities will present themselves.
The terrain was mostly flat with gradual hills you wouldn't even notice in a car. The temperature was warm but not hot, and we often had a cool breeze from some directing to keep my shirt from getting wet.
We interfaced with locals on maybe a dozen occasions, finding only one person who spoke English with any fluidity, the young man managing the hotel's restaurant. Stewart got directions from one lady in French and was gruffly rebuffed by the desk clerk at the first hotel we tried. Perhaps it was his biking costume. Some folks don't like bicyclists because of the clothes we wear.
The only complaint about the hotel room tonight is that it is stifling hot with no a/c and hoards of mosquitoes outside the screenless window. When I checked in, I found my room faced west with a fiery setting sun projecting its heat into the room. I quickly closed the curtains before showering and dining, hoping to block out any more heat. When I returned to my room after supper, I opened the windows to coax the pleasantly cool evening air inside and I've been killing mosquitoes ever since. I closed the windows after seeing the first mosquito and may have just killed the last one, but the room remains uncomfortably hot. A cold shower might help and goes on my pre-bed checklist.
I began James Michener's Poland yesterday - I always try to find a fitting book to read on my travels. It follows the arc of history in Poland through several families, his usual M.O. So far I find it informative and supplementary to my experiences here. And so, I leave you to read a bit more of Michener.
3 Aug 09, Monday 7 am, Ruciane-Nida, 136 km
Yesterday's ride was too long to be entirely enjoyable. Stewart and I were both knackered by the end with sore butts, but we had wanted to get back on Piotr's route. Plus, once we left Ostroleka, the town where we were supposed to stop last night, I'm not sure we would have found rooms in the small villages we passed through. Except for the excessive time in the saddle though (and one other detail to be described later), we couldn't have asked for a better biking day.
The hotel's restaurant yesterday morning did not open until 9 am so we lounged until then. The waiter the night before had convinced me to try their pancakes with sweet white cheese, and it was indeed a winner. What I got was layered crepes with the small curd white cheese mixed with sugar stuffed inside and with whipped cream over the top. They were very tasty without being heavy, a nice beginning to the day.
The weather was gorgeous, warm but not too hot and with a thin, high cloud layer for much of the morning to filter the sun's heat. The route was entirely rural alternating among cultivated and fallow fields, thick woods of pine with some beech along the edges, and small villages. Stewart said the farmers get a subsidy from the E.U. to keep some of their land out of production, similar to the U.S.
The woods were delightful. They cut the crosswind we had for much of the day and provided us shade, a real two-fer in the bike world. The trees were similar to, if not in actuality, lodge-pole pines as they were tall, thin and ramrod straight with no foliage until maybe twenty feet above ground. I would say we biked through these dense forests close to half the route! It made for a very nice ride. We also passed by a large lake that had attracted a bevy of beachgoers, another in what appeared a national forest, and stayed last night in a large resort town on a series of lakes.
Aside from the route length, the only negative on the ride was a short section of bad road. For most of the route, the surface was good to excellent for such rural areas - I was impressed. In a few places the surface degenerated to the bad to rough category. Few of the roads had any shoulder at all and were narrow to boot, meaning you are riding right in the traffic lane, but almost without exception the cars gave us a wide berth. One guy tried to blast us off the road with his horn, but I guess there's always one. However, as we neared our destination city with tired legs and sore butts, we hit a short stretch of cobblestone, a bane for bikers, as we passed through a village. At the edge of the village, the road continued as a rutted, washboard dirt track, the dirt then turning into an almost black powder, what might have been coal, for a two kilometer stretch. Of course whenever a car passed (which was mercifully seldom), it raised a noxious cloud. I felt like I was in the middle of the back woods instead of within spitting distance of the first large town we had seen in close to one hundred miles. After another short bone-jarring cobblestone stretch, we were dumped onto a main highway less than a mile from Ruciane-Vida, a very rough end to an already difficult day.
The hotel Piotr had recommended in this resort town is more like a youth hostel. Stewart and I are sharing a room with three beds and the bare necessities. After a spaghetti supper we hit the hay and slept hard. Stewart is still sleeping as I write this and had I not wanted to get my morning stretch in and this journal entry written, I believe I'd still be sawing logs too. I had to force myself out of bed. Luckily today is much shorter, just 62.7 km according to the itinerary.
One item of note: on the ride yesterday I saw a sign showing "PIES" with a large exclamation mark in a yellow triangle and I thought, "Now here must be someone who has my same predilection for pies." I asked Stewart if he knew what "pies" means in Polish and, though not sure, said it might mean "dogs." <I later confirmed this and found that "PIESI" which we also saw in signage means "pedestrians.">
3 Aug 09, Monday 7:30 pm, Gizycho, 71.7 km
We had an adequate breakfast at our hostel-ish hotel before starting off rather more chipper than we expected to be. The day was overcast and, in fact, I thought it might rain in late morning, but then it cleared before we reached Gizycho, our stop for the night.
The maps Piotr mailed us for this and tomorrow's stages were from last year's route which he had changed, but the Google-map directions are for the revised route. The former show a counter-clockwise route around a large lake to the north and the directions lead us around in a clockwise direction. We had seen three bicycle routes marked on trees and signs coming into town yesterday, and Stewart had seen a large map showing all three routes on our way to supper last night. He said the red bike route would get us to the intersection above the lake where we could catch the Google-map directions the rest of the way. So we decided to try it since this was a much shorter day.
We rechecked the map and headed north on the bike route, but shortly found we had taken the eastern loop instead of the one to the west and were cut off from our route by the lake. Eventually, we backtracked to town and followed the Google-map instructions after all. They were relatively straightforward, and we made our way to Gizycho without further incident - just those eight extra kilometers on our false start.
Stage one out of Warsaw had been flat; stage two was mostly flat with some very low inclination hills that you only noticed when your speed dropped off a few kph; today's route continued that trend as we rode rolling hills most of the day. I turned a few into rollers, but for most I had to downshift to make them comfortable. You can sure feel the extra load of carrying all your gear when you cycle uphill.
I began the day feeling much better in all ways than I expected. Part way through the ride I hit a tired spell, but picked up a second wind and ended strong. The route sure helps dictate your mood. Again we did lots of forest riding interspersed with cultivated fields and small villages, but today also offered several lake views. The road surfaces averaged a bit worse than the last two days, but we had no terrible stretches like yesterday. I spotted two pairs of storks on their nests today and one pair feeding in a field - most Europeans consider them good luck.
Upon arriving at our accommodation on a big lake, I took a refreshing dip - it felt great - before walking to town with Stewart to find a bank and a meal. I had a nice piece of pork smothered in mushroom gravy which seems to be a standard meal here, with potatoes and a salad.
There is a lot of water in this part of Poland including a canal which flows through Gizycho with many boats full of people traveling the canal system for holiday. On our return to our bungalow, we watched a bridge open in town to let the boat traffic through. The mechanism was one I had not previously seen. The two ends of the bridge were rounded to fit snuggly into place where they met the road. First the bridge keeper pulled barriers down by a cord to stop vehicular traffic. He then opened a foot-diameter cover on the surface of the bridge maybe ten feet from one end and fitted a five foot section of pipe or hard wood into a joint in the hole. Next, he placed a second piece through a slot in the top of the first piece so it stuck out horizontally about waist high. He then pushed against it walking around the center pole maybe six or seven times much like a donkey or ox would grind grain at a mill. The mechanical advantage of the gears beneath the near section of the bridge must be great and well-greased because without apparent effort, the rear bridge section rotated smoothly in its fitting while the rest of the bridge rotated out of the far side fitting and slewed cross the canal to end up horizontal to the near bank. The operation drew quite a crowd. I reckon the bridge master is a minor celebrity in Gizycho.
Tomorrow is another short stage, but we pass near Hitler's Wolf Lair and might stop on the way. I'm hoping for another great night's sleep.
4 Aug 09, Tuesday 6 pm, Reszel, 58.3 km
Today was short and felt short. We breakfasted at our lakeside villa and headed off again trying Piotr's new route. The new route, however, does not go past the hamlet of Gierloz, site of Hitler's Wolfsschanze or Wolf's Lair. So we consulted our maps and found a back road that led us on a short diversion north about five kilometers. Unfortunately, we had to play it by ear as the route was not marked. We did find a road with a sign for a village that appeared to be on the desired route and gave it a try.
The route started out dirt, but within twenty feet turned to well-worn cobblestone. However, we persevered and found that sometimes a narrow shoulder of packed earth would appear for a short distance and sometimes the middle ridge of the road would be relatively smoother, and so we made our way through yet another deep forest. Happily the road ended right at the entrance to the Wolf's Lair on the main road.
The entrance created a minor traffic jam as the fee was collected just off the road backing traffic up from both directions about a quarter mile - a very poor set-up and an easily remedied situation if someone took the time to think it out. After seeing the crowds, Stewart decided not to go in and so waited by the bikes until I returned.
The complex is large and entirely wooded. I had heard of this secret Nazi headquarters before and had, in fact, just seen the movie Valkyrie about the infamous plot to assassinate Hitler led by Colonel Claus van Stauffenberg on 20 July 1944, but I was not aware of the site's scope or importance. The tour book states that Hitler lived here, with few excursions off-site, from June 1941until November 1944 when the Soviets approached. There are two signed paths through the forest to see the ruins, large thick-walled bunkers tilting at odd angles along with a few more intact or restored buildings holding information placards, gift shops, models of the site, etc. Although signs are posted on every ruin warning people not to climb on them or get off the beaten path (it took ten years to clear the 55,000 mines from the forest), people have turned this place into a sort of wild playground as they poke their noses in the many dark recesses and climb over the ruins. In truth, it reminded me of a modern version of Angkor Wat in Cambodia or one of the Mayan ruins - not nearly on that scale of course, but just as unexpected when gamboling through the woods.
Because Stewart was waiting, I did not ask about English tours, though I passed tour groups being briefed in other languages. I did check out one building with placards detailing what happened to kinsmen of famous (and rich) foreigners. The Nazis kept them separate from the rest of the prison/internment camp population in case they could be used for ransom. I quickly read through the exhibit which was translated into multiple languages getting just the gist.
From Gierloz the route was straightforward and we breezed into Reszel our stop for the night. On the way, we again seemed to be following a red bike route. I suspect it must be a different route then the one around Ruciane-Nida. On the way into Reszel following a rural route, we passed a set of Stations of the Cross. They covered a distance of maybe two or three kilometers along the road. There was no way to tell whether an individual, a church, or a community was responsible for their placement, but it would be pleasant way to perform this ritual on this quiet road out in the open versus in a dark church.
Our hotel is in old town Reszel, a quaint village complete with 14th century castle and parish church, both of which I explored after checking in and showering. Our hotelier speaks neither English nor German, Stewart being conversant in both. As we've arrived in the northern part of Poland, we have heard many people speaking German, and when we see bilingual menus and signage, one of the languages is German. This part of Poland was once part of Prussia and before that, in the Middle Ages, the Teutonic Knights ethnically cleansed this region, purging the "pagans" (though most Poles by that time had been converted to Christianity for generations) and bringing in German farmers to work the land. Having taken some German, it helps me when reading menus and makes check-in/out easier too.
The town's castle has been turned into a hotel with restaurant and attendant shops, but the tower and dungeons are available to tour. From the tower, you can see miles in all directions as the castle, like all good castles, sits on an imposing hill. The one dungeon available for viewing is appropriately dark and dank, but I noticed the dungeon room opposite with barred door sports a full-sized pool table with overhead fluorescent lighting - an incongruous sight.
Before I sign off, I was surprised to hear the theme song from Slumdog Millionaire playing across the street. I have heard it multiple times in the last few days. It must be popular in Poland right now. Popular culture, with all the new fangled electronic communication devices, must propagate faster than just about anything else since it is the young people who drive the industry.
One more story: when ordering food in a strange and unfamiliar land, one can often be surprised. This evening I ordered zurek, that traditional sour soup I described above, and Stewart ordered beet soup and croquette. I expected what I got, but was surprised at what Stewart was served, though he wasn't: a breaded, deep-fried meat roll and a bowl of sweet beet soup to drink with the croquette. When our second courses arrived, the waitress had them switched, but we didn't figure it out until Stewart had eaten al of mine and I had eaten half of his. I had ordered a chicken salad and he had ordered a garden salad and beef and noodles. One would not think those two orders could be confused by the orderers, but indeed neither dish was anything like what we expected, and we obediently ate what was put in front of us. We both felt like ninnies when we realized what had happened. And so it goes … this comedy called life.
Morning. Let me say a few words about bedding. We are staying in a small nicely-appointed pension. My room has a king-size bed with dual mattresses. Each is covered in a light sheet about four-fifths of the way to the top of the mattress. In other words, the top foot and a half of mattress is not covered. Over each of the mattresses is a comforter and over both beds was a wispy chiffon flounce. The idea is to lie on the sheet with the pillow covering the bare mattress at the top and pull the comforter over you. This has been the situation pretty much everywhere we've stayed but with some of the sheets covering the whole mattress. There is no slipping between the sheets here and most nights just a top sheet would have been sufficient so you tend to sleep either hot or a bit cool or you strip the cover off the comforter and use it as a top sheet. Except in the big hotel in Warsaw there has been no a/c, and I've seen no window screens yet to keep out the mosquitoes, so again you have a choice of fresh air and bugs or stuffy and no bugs. Needless to say, since we've been riding, I've slept soundly regardless of the bedding.
5 Aug 09, Wednesday 5 pm, Misyjne Seminarium Duchowne, Pieniezno, 84.8 km
Breakfast at our delightful little pension in Reszel was typical: a plate of sliced ham, cheese, sliced tomato (no cucumbers today), bread and butter, tea or coffee; the special extra today was a plate of very tasty scrambled eggs liberally seasoned with chopped onion (which I tasted all morning). Yesterday's special extra was a crepe rolled with maybe some of that sweet white cheese I described before. It'll be interesting to see what tomorrow's breakfast brings in this seminary … oops, I'm getting ahead of myself.
The route today was again pleasantly rural with less traffic than we've seen the last several days - the one exception was a short stretch on a two-digit road (which signifies a more major road). It was heavily overcast when we began the morning and at both our first two rest stops before we pedaled out from under dark clouds. In fact, it had obviously rained here at some time in the recent past as we saw puddles along the road. As we neared Pieniezno, our destination village, we could see heavy cumulus clouds hanging over the area, we traversed sections where the road was still wet and finally, as we sought our hotel cum seminary (or seminary cum hotel), it began to lightly sprinkle. It never really did more then that though, and now the sun is out as I write this. We had a lucky weather day.
The terrain has continued to progress in the hill department, and we rode hills pretty much continuously all day with a couple steep enough to drive me to my granny gear - none were very long though. The heavily forested roads have given way to much more agriculture. Many farmers are now harvesting their grain. The use of large farm machinery is much more prevalent here than in other former communist nations I have biked, especially Romania and Bulgaria, but even in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic I saw considerably fewer thrashers, large tractors and the like. In one field, two huge combines had begun in the center and were working their way in opposite directions strip by strip leaving a gorgeous harvest picture of tan and gold in various textures.
We met one of these monsters on our route today and the driver pulled almost off the road in order for a car to pass by. Even on a bike, I barely had enough room as the business end of the combine took up almost the width of the narrow road all the way to the fence line on one side. I wonder how the distribution of all this equipment proceeded when moving from a communist collective to free enterprise. And do a group of farmers still share the use of some of this very expensive equipment? I had read that, unlike in most other Eastern European nations under the Soviet wing, Polish farmers were able to keep the lands they previously owned, but I can't imagine they could have owned outright such expensive equipment.
Although we saw less wooded lanes than in previous days, we did pass through one wood that was all deciduous as opposed to pine. Also, many of the country lanes on this ride had rows of large hardwood trees running along both sides of the road for kilometers. We would have been as effectively shaded had the sun been out as if we were biking through forest, but this double line of trees would not have stopped a crosswind. Today I was also able to identify some road kill: a frog, a badger, and a hedgehog (not quite the cast for The Wind in the Willows but close). Previously, I have seen a few dead animals, but nothing identifiable except a recently dead cat. Also, today we saw many more storks, mostly in fields, housetops or flying; one group of a dozen or so were in a kettle catching updrafts like the buzzards you see in the Southwest U.S. One stork was taking advantage of the largess disturbed by a farmer mowing a field with a tractor, behavior reminiscent of cattle egrets back home.
We have begun to see other bike tourists in the last couple days, maybe ten or so. Last night two young men stayed in our pension and were packing their bikes in the courtyard this morning as were we. I should note that in five days of rural biking we have not been chased by a dog once. A few bark at us, but they are either tethered, fenced, or don't care that much. We have passed few loose dogs, but they tend to ignore us and get out of our way. This summer while visiting mom in Indiana, I was chased several times in as many days as I rode through the countryside.
Piotr has done a great job so far recommending routes (though we diverted again today for a short stretch) and places to stay. Of tonight's venue he states on his website info, "it's a cloister, a museum, and a hotel." In fact, it is Misyjne Seminarium Duchowne, a seminary. The young seminarian who answered our ring seemed a bit taken aback to see two damp bicyclists confronting him with a request for a room. But after telephonic consultation, he copied my passport info, chuckling over my U.S. citizenship, showed us where we could park our bikes for the night, and took us to our single room with two beds, a nice bathroom, even a small TV set. Supper is at 7 pm, breakfast at 8 am. We are free to wander the grounds and the first floor. Surprisingly, our key has an electronically coded disc that allows us to gain entry from outside. So far we haven't explored much. We both wanted a shower and nap. Stewart is still asleep, and I'll need to roust him soon for our evening meal. It is certainly quiet. I don't think they have other overnight guests. The young man spoke school English and told us they don't get many guests, but sometimes school children visit in groups for a purpose he could not find the English words to describe. I'm looking forward to what our repast will provide.
In my Michener book on Poland, the Poles have been overrun by the Tatars from the east (1241), the Teutonic Knights from the west (1410), and are about to be swamped by the Swedes from the north (1655). He makes the point, as I have read elsewhere, that Poland's greatest failure as a state might stem from one of their greatest attributes: their independent streak which in the past kept them from accepting a strong central government (at least when they had a choice). Very early they opted for a form of democracy where the landed gentry voted in their king. But the gentry were wary of a king becoming too strong so they often voted for a king from another country, France for instance or Sweden. This they could do according to their rules. Not often was a fellow Pole voted king. There is strong evidence that greed and a feeling of privilege on the part of the gentry were their strongest motivations. They wanted to ensure they lost none of the power over their villages and their lands, and at the same time, were always looking to increase both.
By keeping the royal governance weak, the country was much more vulnerable to outside aggression, and Poland was overrun time and again. At different points in its history, Poland disappeared completely, its lands divvied up as spoil to the victors. At one point in the 16th century, Poland and Lithuania combined as the Commonwealth of Two Nations with borders encompassing also Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and the Ukraine. During part of this time, beginning in 1596, Warsaw became Poland's capital.
After that historical tidbit, let me share a cultural note. I had read in my tour book before arriving that you won't find the Poles on the street very friendly because if you smile at a stranger, you will be thought stupid. I asked Piotr about this at supper the night before we left, and he confirmed it. Well, I generally try to be friendly to people on the street I meet while biking or walking. But rather than be though a simpleton, I'm trying a quick bob of the head as a greeting. On the bike I'll sometimes wave to street workers or tractor and truck drivers, and sometimes I'll get a wave back, sometimes just a puzzled look … and once someone threw a cat at me (no, just kidding). I also often get a positive response when I call out dzien dobry (which sounds like "jen dobry" and means "hello" or "good day"). Dobry is the most common reply.
Tomorrow is 101 km to another Old Town area. The sky no longer looks like rain so we hope for another pleasant ride.
6 Aug 09, Thursday 8:30 pm, Malbork, 105.4 km
It was quiet as a … well, as a cloister last night. I slept until 6 am and Stewart until 7:30 am. Our supper the night before had been in a closed room with a couple of tables, but we were the only ones eating. When we walked in, the table was already laden with cold cuts and cheese, a pot of tea, bread and butter and a hot dish consisting of noodles, onions and cabbage that was very tasty. We ate our fill and sat talking for a long time. Before we turned in, we toured the garden area where a few other people enjoyed the fountain, meditated, or smoked …or maybe all three.
Breakfast was cold cuts, cheese, bread, butter, jam and a pot of weak coffee and one of hot milk. That's cold cuts three meals in a row.
Today we enjoyed either sunshine or big billowing clouds. It never got too hot. We again encountered lots of hills, but none too long or steep. We found our own way for the first half of the ride as Piotr had changed routes. We successfully navigated back roads, some nicely surfaced and some pretty rough. Later in the day we hit ten kilometers of awful cobblestone. We survived primarily by riding off-road on tire-wide tracks that local bikers had worn on one side of the road or the other. It was a tedious business on a fully laden bike.
We are well and truly in stork country. We must have passed a couple dozen walking the fields, in their nests, atop houses or flying. Of course some Polish dog must have peeked at my journal entry last night about how laid back Polish dogs are and spread the word because we were chased by no less than five dogs today - all were small, a couple were just going through the motions, and none posed a threat. We also had our first spontaneously friendly offer. We have been approached by a guy looking for a hand-out, a guy who stopped to shake our hands and say welcome, a few people who have greeted us, but today as we were stopped along a country road consulting our map, an elderly lady came out of her farm house, down the lane, and motioned for us two or three times to come on up. We waved our thanks but declined the offer. I like to think she wanted to offer us refreshment and not stick us in a pie and pop us in the oven.
Tonight we are housed about a kilometer from Malbork Castle, Europe's largest Gothic castle. The Teutonic Knights built the fortress in the late 13th century and made it their headquarters. Called Marienburg or Fortress of Mary, it consists of three castles within three rings of defensive walls. The Poles finally seized the fortress during the Thirteen Year's War in 1457. Over the years parts of the fortress have been destroyed and used for various purposes, but it has now renovated and granted UNESCO acknowledgement. It is indeed an impressive edifice.
For super we had a hard time finding a restaurant in town other than a huge McDonalds, but we finally choose one whose proprietor, an Algerian-Spanish mixture, charmed us into his establishment. The menu was varied and the food just okay, but the owner was a friendly guy and interesting to talk to. He's been in Poland ten years and speaks Polish, French, German English and Spanish - what a mix.
Tomorrow we head to Gdansk for a well deserved rest. It's a shorter ride which will be appreciated.
7 Aug 09, Friday 4:40 pm, Gdansk, 68.2 km
We have survived a grueling seven-day ride to reach Gdansk, gem of the Baltic, home of the Hanseatic League, previously known as Danzig and our home for three nights. Yes, we have two whole days off the bike. From past experience on these long bike trips, our break will have a rejuvenating effect and, by golly, we deserve it!
The hotel was surprisingly quiet last night, always a treat. The sun rose into a dense haze which muted both heat and light coming directly into my room. The morning air was pleasantly cool. After yet another breakfast of cold cuts, bread and tea, we circled the Malbork Castle and headed northwest toward Gdansk. Again we were mostly on back roads, some with very rough surfaces including a too-long stretch of cobblestone.
As we closed in on Gdansk, Piotr routed us on a circuitous path that was not quite a road, but more than a bike path following a canal north. I saw no boat traffic on this canal which resembled a slow moving river. As we reached the outskirts of Gdansk we saw young boys jumping from piers into the canal which ran behind their houses. The farmers also use these paths. At one point we had to pull completely off the road to allow two large tractors each pulling two wagons full of huge hay rolls to pass. The surface of the path is composed of closely spaced cement bricks about four feet by three feet. Each block has four columns and four rows of eight-inch oval holes cut along the major axis. Although this design did give us a bit of a rumble as we rode over the holes, it was not nearly as bad as cobblestone. Regardless, we were happy to get back on regular roads even though the paths allowed us a traffic-free journey to near the city center. Piotr has obviously put some work into his route planning.
Today we had no hills to speak of. We must have gotten beyond that area affected by the last glacial recession which created most of the lakes and hilly terrain we have passed through this last week.
It took us a bit of map reading, but we found the hotel Piotr recommended, Dom Muzyka Akademii Muzycznej. As you might have guessed from the name, it is actually on the grounds of a music academy and has very nice mid-range rooms with small refrigerators - a first. We'll call it "home" for a couple of days.
I've already done my laundry, showered, journalized, and last night I read through the Gdansk section of my Lonely Planet guide, but I haven't chosen an itinerary for the next two days yet. I just might have time to start that chore before Stewart and I head off to find supper.
8 Aug 09, Saturday 5 pm, Gdansk
For supper yesterday evening, Stewart and I walked the short distance across two bridges and an island and through the Green Gate to Main Town. As the Motlawa River (an offshoot of the Vistula) flows into Gdansk, it splits for a short distance into the Motlawa and the New Motlawa creating Spichlerze Island before rejoining and flowing into the Baltic Sea. Our hotel is just east of the island and an easy quarter mile walk from the city's "action." Gdansk's two main tourist areas are called Main Town and Old Town with the former being the hub of activity. The Green Gate is at the east end of the Royal Way … but more of that in a minute. Suffice to say we stepped from the gate into the heart of Gdansk which seemed to be pulsing in an adrenal rush as the streets were lined with booths, barkers hawking their wares, a bungee jumper plunged from one of Gdansk shipyard's famous cranes, and we could see carnival rides set up near the river. In short, a fair of some sort was either taking place or was about to.
Even had there not been an abnormally high amount of human activity, emerging from the Green Gate would've been a shock. Dlugi Targ or Market Street is quite a sight. The city has done a wonderful job of restoration since WW II. Both sides of the street are lined with tall, narrow, brightly colored buildings in the Hanseatic mode, one after the next sharing a common wall all the way down the street until your gaze is blocked by the tall tower of Old Town Hall, now housing the History Museum of Gdansk (which I later found, to my consternation, to be closed for renovation). And a bit farther along your gaze is again interrupted by the massive spires of St. Mary's Church, the largest in Gdansk. Immediately I realized this was going to be a fun city to spend a couple days exploring.
Stewart and I settled on the first restaurant we found and had a pleasant meal, for me a very tasty version of the traditional zurek soup, but this time with wild mushrooms added, along with honey baked ribs over sauerkraut, roasted potatoes and a salad plate -- a good beginning to a little vacation within a vacation. On the way back to the hotel we stopped to pick up drinks from the grocery to put in our fridges. The small shop was packed with people evidently trying to buy a few things for the weekend before the store closed. It reminded me a bit of when, under communism, lines formed at shops before the doors even opened in the hope of finding something to buy. Of course this was nothing compared to that awful time although some items were getting scarce and, for a people with a history of long queues, the patrons sure seemed impatient.
Today Stewart was planning to meet a Dutch work mate (he's been doing much of his work in Holland this last year) who just happens to have a port of call in Gdansk while on a ten-day Baltic cruise. I set a full day itinerary of touring last night and started first this morning at the tourist information kiosk to see if there are English-language walking tours of the city. I got one answer this morning and another this afternoon with the result a resounding "maybe." I need to check in again tomorrow morning. Regardless, I had chosen the sites I most wanted to visit last night and so set about to work off that list.
I first headed to the "Roads to Freedom Exhibit" documenting Solidarity's rise through the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent transmogrification of the various Soviet Socialist Republics to independent nations. I kept looking for the building which turned out to be a mistake because this museum is entirely underground. It is not a fancy or sophisticated museum, but it is effective. The exhibit moves you from room to room chronologically beginning with a diorama of what a grocery store looked like in Gdansk during the Soviet era with its mostly bare shelves and then providing a history of the early uprisings in Poland and other Soviet States before depicting the historic strike in August 1980. The successful strike negotiations led to "16 months of hope" that was shattered in December 1981 when martial law was declared in Poland with a devastating crackdown lasting until July 1984. Finally, the exhibit provides an effective film montage of each Eastern European country gaining its independence. For a western visitor the exhibit is informative; for a Pole or other Eastern European, it must be extremely moving and inspirational.
From the freedom exhibit I walked to the shipyards to see the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers which was quickly erected during the "interregnum" between the 1980 strike and martial law. Though this strike and others like it happened well after Stalin died, they do put some credence to a remark attributed to the Soviet leader that implementing communism in Poland was like putting a saddle on a cow.
I made my way back to the western end of the Royal Way where the Upland Gate leads to the Foregate and then the Golden Gate before continuing down the Royal Way which is only about 500 meters long. My goal this time was the Foregate which had also been the site of the Torture House and a Prison Tower. While the Torture House does display some of the implements and modes of torture too horrible to even imagine, the Prison Tower is now the site of the Amber Museum.
I had read that Gdansk was a terminus on the Amber Road and that the market in Pomerania (this region of Poland) was manipulated by the Teutonic Knights and wanted to know more. It seems that amber washes up frequently on the Baltic beaches of Poland and Russia, but it is also found in many other places, being the fossilized resin of tree sap, and much of it found its way via various amber roads to Gdansk which processed the material into jewelry, inlay, and various other decorative items.
The museum provides good English explanations for the routes, the processing, the various types and uses. However, I found the specimens they displayed with embedded plant and animal material to be most interesting. Just like at the beginning of the movie Jurassic Park, they had many amber beads in which ants, bees, flies, spiders, and other bugs had been trapped millions of years ago and are still perfectly preserved in amber. They even had a small lizard in amber.
One piece of information I didn't understand was that scientists are still unsure exactly what trees provided the sap. Since the amber is organic, I would have thought it might contain some of the trees DNA. I asked an attendant about this, but the language barrier proved too much for this technical question.
Since the Town Hall with Gdansk's History Museum was closed for renovations, I headed south of Main Town to the National Museum's Department of Early Art which had a fine collection of porcelain dishes, furniture and other craft items. The paintings seemed to be mostly northern European artists. Probably the most important work is a triptych of the "Last Judgment" by Hans Memling. It is a large work with Christ in the middle panel separating the wheat from the chaff (so to speak) with the wheat going to the left and the chaff falling to the right. As always when this theme is depicted, by far the more interesting section is the sinners being dragged down to hell. Those old time painters seemed to be in healthy competition for who could conceive of the most depraved, diabolical and demented scenes to paint on his canvass.
In the outer hall from the triptych was a screen showing close up views of the painting. A cameraman had obviously filmed the painting in close up at a previous time, and now the camera pans across the painting in a random manner stopping to dwell for some seconds on a particular scene. Even after having viewed a similar presentation of a Bosch painting in a Vienna museum, I was still surprised at how much more you get from seeing a painting in this way. Part of the reason is that most of these paintings are very dark and are often underlit which prohibits good viewing. However, I also think that when you view the entire canvass, so many individual stories compete for your attention that you miss details. After viewing the screen for some time, I went back to the main canvass to pick out things I had missed - an interesting experiment.
On the way back to the hotel I poked my nose in one old church and then just enjoyed the ambiance of a beautiful late summer's day in a vibrant Polish city.
9 Aug 09, Sunday noon, Gdansk
The northeast corner of Poland is a region called Pomerania and Gdansk is the region's gem. Officially Gdansk's history begins in 997 when a Bohemian Bishop arrived and baptized the inhabitants. Because of its proximity to Germany, the region received many German immigrants. In 1308 the Teutonic Knights took over Gdansk, later joining the Hanseatic League of merchants on the Baltic. In 1454 the local population threw out the Teutonic Knights and joined with the Polish government. Gdansk continued to prosper as a great trade city and by the 1600s was Poland's largest city.
Although Gdansk withstood the Swedish invasion in the 1650s, it was annexed by Prussia in 1793. Napoleon conquered the city in 1807, but the Congress of Vienna in 1815 returned the city to Prussia. After WW I, the Treaty of Versailles granted Poland a strip of land on the Baltic called "the Polish Corridor," but designated Gdansk as the Free City of Danzig. This lasted until WW II when the small Polish outpost of Westerplatte in the north of the city became the first causality of WW II (it was also to be the last Polish territory occupied by the Germans at the end of the war). Gdansk was badly damaged during WW II, and residents spent the post war years rebuilding with as much authenticity to prewar architecture as possible using photographs, paintings and drawings. The result is nothing short of remarkable.
I related yesterday the cities more recent history so I'll get on with my visit here. I skipped the tour office since I felt I was getting the run-around yesterday concerning the walking tour. Instead I headed off on my own to parts of the city I had not yet seen. It was another beautiful morning, more so because it is Sunday and the early crowds were much less. I made a tactical error yesterday in leaving all the churches for today since the services appear to be almost nonstop. I did take a quick look into several and found all to be much lighter than most European or American churches I have visited. All had the vaulted Gothic ceilings painted white with large windows. They are not ornate in comparison to most churches I've seen. St. Mary's, considered by some to be the largest all-brick church in the world is indeed massive, but I was surprised to see that the pew area was small and even those seats weren't filled at the mid-morning service. The church itself tends to dominate the skyline of Gdansk from a distance.
The only other church I visited worth special note is St. Bridget's. This is the church Lech Walesa attended while an unknown electrician; its pastor spoke out strongly for Solidarity during the strikes. The church houses the tombstone of Father Jerzy Popieluszko who was arrested for demagoguery and murdered. It sounds like the Poles are pushing for his canonization. The church also houses a Tree of Life made largely of amber which I thought a rather ugly piece. The stylized altar was more appealing, however. From what I could tell with my binos, it is a series of parallel pipes (maybe brass), all of different lengths and starting and ending at different levels with maybe a foot of space between the pipes so that you can distinctly see the rough red brick wall of the church behind it. I've never seen an altarpiece quite like it before. It was ethereal, seeming to float in space. I thought it odd that St. Bridget's and the larger St. Catherine's were not one hundred feet from each other and apparently even shared parking lots. I realize that the percentage of Catholics in Poland is high (though Gdansk was one of the first areas to accept the Reformation), but why would you build two such massive churches so close to each other?
Having gone through my A-list of attractions and all but one site on my B-list, I figured I'd finish off my list - something I seldom do. So I dead reckoned back to Market Street in Main Town to find Artus Court which has been restored and preserved as a museum of sorts. I say "dead reckoned" because by this time I know pretty much where everything is and can just head off. I've found this to be the case in many cities I've visited. It really doesn't take much time to get your bearings, especially with oversized landmarks to point the way.
Artus Court was disappointing. Although touted as the most well known building in Gdansk with even a whiskey named for it, it just didn't float my boat. For one thing, the upper floor was off-limits due to renovation (or some such reason). For another, it looked too much like it had been renovated (it had been destroyed in WW II and rebuilt). For instance, the animal heads hanging in the large main hall were made of plastic which I though a bit kitschy. There were a couple of paintings which used a technique I have not often seen though. One large painting showed the goddess Dianne and her dog hunting a stag. The dog is leaping onto the stag's back, but the stag is not painted but a plaster cast of a stag stuck to the painting. I know it sounds weird, but from the right angle, it works pretty well.
The large hall, the furniture, a massive tiled fireplace that supposedly had political implications concerning the Reformation, the silver and gold work (Gdansk was known as much for this craft as for the amber) and other knick-knacks were interesting, but not much worth the time or money.
Tomorrow we begin riding again tending southwest taking four days to get to Posnan, our next rest town. I'm looking forward to a good last supper in Gdansk tonight.
10 Aug 09, Monday, Wdzydze Kiszewskie (Golun), 104.6 km
After a hearty breakfast we said goodbye to Gdansk. We were both concerned at the beginning about Piotr's choice of route. He had us skirting Main Town on a major road - not for more than a couple kilometers, but still … We decided to at least take a look (I had used the city map to find a safer route) and saw that, even though it was just after 9 am on a Monday morning, the traffic was not bad at all. So we merged onto the road and made it to our semi-major road without problems. That didn't solve all our traffic problems though. Most of the day today the roads were just plain crowded. It started after we got off the major highway onto a semi-major two-lane road taking us away from Gdansk, but it persisted even on roads marked as minor thoroughfares. As I've mentioned, the roads in general are somewhat narrower than I am used to, and they seldom have shoulders of any kind. Therefore, the cars and especially the trucks have to wait behind you until they can pass, and sometimes they get antsy. I don't like to hold up traffic anyway so this situation makes me uncomfortable having a line-up of cars and trucks behind me waiting to pass. We did get a break now and then, but much of the day was a bit scary. We're just lucky the Poles are used to bicycle traffic and have much patience.
On the other hand, we passed through beautiful country today. We're back into rolling hills, forests and lots of lakes. This area of Pomerania is called Kashubia, a region folklore credits with being created by giants leaving their footprints everywhere thus creating the hills and lakes. It's basically backcountry Poland, and prettier lake country I have not seen.
We seem to have passed out of stork country, as we saw nary a one today. I can add fox to my road kill list though. I have seen several specimens I had guessed were foxes based on fur color, but today I saw a confirmed kill. There's no mistaking that thin muzzle.
One of the small towns we passed through was Kartuzy which boasts a church that wags say has a roof like a coffin lid. The church was built by a sect of austere monks who lived by the motto "Memento Mori," Latin for "Remember You Must Die." I once read a delightful novel with this Latin phrase as its title by that sharp witted Muriel Sparks (of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie fame). I'm not sure the monks would have appreciated her acerbic wit, but they would have approved of her plot. I stopped to take a photo of the quaint church which also boasted a large and beautifully tended cemetery.
I had read that the Kashubians hung onto their dialect stronger and longer than other ethnic groups in Poland, and it evidently still shows in their language. Be that as it may, Stewart and I had our first real challenge with a menu at supper tonight. Before this, menus we have consulted included English or at least German translations. The one tonight at our pleasant lakeside, but remote, hotel does not. Luckily we have been in-country long enough to pick up a few words and a few others we can guess at, so we vetoed me returning to my room for my tour book which might have given us a few more clues. Our selections, soup and a main, turned out well. We both decided to try a chicken dish with the French sounding name "Deville" that we have seen on almost every menu, each time wondering what it was. And now we know! It's a lot like chicken cordon bleu without the cheese, ham and sauce. In other words, it's a chicken breast rolled up and lightly fried in crumbs. So now you know too if you are ever in Poland.
As I mentioned, this hotel is on one of those beautiful lakes we have seen since we started. It's a large place, but it doesn't seem to be very full. Mostly we've seen families as the hotel has a nice beach area. I took advantage of the lake for a refreshing dip as soon as we checked in.
We continue south tomorrow to a place called Sepólno Krajenskie which is not listed in my guide book so it will all be a surprise. However, I do expect a day filled with beautiful countryside again and in this I don't think I'll be disappointed.
11 Aug 09, Tuesday 5:15 pm, Sepólno Krajenskie, 95.4 km
Today the main determinate of the trip "pleasure-o-meter" was weather, more specifically rain. After an ample breakfast again served buffet-style, we rode out under a heavily overcast sky. The first part of the ride was past lakes and forests on decent roads with little traffic and, without the sun beating down, it was cool - excellent riding characteristics. However, about twenty kilometers into the ride, we began feeling a few drops of rain. This persisted for some time until it turned into a little sprinkle, not really enough to get us wet, but a bit of a bother nonetheless.
About midway through the ride we faced a choice, follow the map I had or follow the Google-map instructions because for maybe thirty kilometers they obviously differed. We opted to follow the map since it seemed to take less major byways. Our chosen route was very nice, and we had no problems tracking our route from one small village to the next. We've evidently re-entered stork country as we again saw maybe ten of the conspicuous birds. Our route now was through farmland with healthy corn, maybe wheat or barley, and a crop neither of us recognized - a single stalk maybe two feet high with a small, fading flower at the top. We also passed another couple of pretty lakes before we spilled out onto a three-digit road heading directly to our destination.
For most of the way the light rain had been stop and go, but about twenty kilometers from our destination it turned heavy. At two points we stopped under trees hoping the squall would pass. The first time it did, but the second time, though it eased a bit, a middling rain persisted. I exchange my wind jacket which only deflects a light rain for my Gortex rain jacket which will work in any weather and powered the last ten kilometers to Sepólno Krajenskie. When it's raining steadily you just don't see much of what is around you. I have to give full marks to my bike's fenders though. They kept the road grime I accumulated down to almost none.
Our pension is modest - a make-your-own-bed type with a pleasant German speaking proprietress. Of course the rain stopped shortly after we entered town and now, after a warm shower and a nap, it looks nice out. The sun hasn't broken through, but at least it is a bit brighter outside. Let's hope this bodes well for the morrow.
Oh, one thing I keep forgetting to mention: we have seen many cars carrying (usually two) bicycles either on a roof or rear carrier. Without exception from what I've noticed, they have been mountain bikes. Also, I would estimate that almost half the roads we've cycled have cycle route signs. Usually these are painted (stenciled) on trees along the route and are generally a picture of a bicycle with colored line(s) above it noting which route it is. Sometimes we've seen these route signs lead bikers off paved roads into forests or dirt roads (like in the National Forest through which we rode today). We have seen recreational bikers on the road (again mountain bikes) as well as maybe a dozen self-contained tour bikers throughout the trip. In addition, particularly when we stop at a sklep (shop) for a (generally not cool) drink, we have often seen men and women of all ages as well as children using pushbikes as transportation around a village or between farm houses and the village. At one sklep, we saw two elderly women pushing their bikes to the shop. I surmised they no longer feel comfortable pedaling the bike and now use it for support when walking and the basket serves a convenient way to carry the groceries home.
12 Aug 09, Wednesday 8 pm, Biskupin, 105.8 km
After a standard Polish breakfast, we left our little pension under gray skies and cycled south into the region called Wielkopolska or Greater Poland. According to my guide book this is where the Polish state was founded in the Middle Ages, the very beginning of Poland. We'll be here until we leave Poznan which we reach tomorrow for a rest day.
We avoided rain today and enjoyed cooler weather under mostly cloudy skies with a strong west wind hitting us crosswise as we continued south all day. We had a fifty-fifty mix of rural, lightly trafficked roads and nicely surface highways with more traffic than we'd like. For a very short while, less than a kilometer, we had a nice shoulder and a white line at the edge of the road. Unfortunately, the shoulder disappeared but the white line, in a mottled pattern I've not seen before, stayed the entire time, maybe forty kilometers - very nice. Since the road surface is new, maybe all roads will be upgraded as they are resurfaced. It would be a good idea for motorists as well as cyclists.
At one point today I got a bit of a scare. A driver approached from the rear and I moved to the side as always. Then I heard a long screeching of tires. I was able to pull completely off the road onto a gravel way and turn to see what was going on. The woman just drove on by. I can only guess that she was not paying attention (cell phone?) and suddenly saw me and a motorbike coming from the opposite direction and reacted inappropriately by slamming on her brakes. She and the motorbike could have easily passed each other - she just panicked. The odds are stacked against a cyclist. If you make a mistake, you lose. If the driver makes a mistake, you lose. Either way, you lose. This realization has made me a very defensive biker. Luckily on this cross-bike I'm much more agile than on a road bike and can take evasive action without much worry that I'll lose control of the bike.
We added some extra mileage to our day by making a couple of wrong turns. The Google-map directions didn't help much. At one point the directions were just plain wrong and for the whole last third of the ride, they weren't complete - very different from what we've come to expect from the directions.
Anyway, we finally made it to our Biskupin hotel, another relatively bare bones, make-your-own-bed establishment which is located in the country across the street from an archeological reserve. Although we didn't arrive until almost 5 pm, I did tour the reserve for 45 minutes before it closed. The reserve and museum are on the site of a significant discovery made by a school teacher in 1933 when he saw wooden structures poking up out of the surrounding swamp. The discovery was a 2700-year-old Iron Age town. The site was excavated over a lengthy period by Polish archeologists who had much free help when the exciting nature of the discovery was reported.
A town has been reconstructed as it might have looked with some of the interiors also rebuilt. It reminded me of an old western fort you've seen in many an oater made in the 1950s and 60s. The museum houses artifacts recovered from the bog, many in good shape due to the bog's anaerobic nature. The town is attributed to a Lusatian tribe of which I had not previously heard. Although I had little time to explore the museum, I did read a placard that speculated on the town's eventual abandonment. It was reminiscent of Jared Diamond's recent book Collapse in that it noted two of Diamond's reasons why a civilization collapses: climate change and hostile neighbors. Evidently after about 1,000 years of habitation, the climate began cooling with higher average precipitation making it harder for the tribe to eke out a living. At the same time, pressure from invaders from the Black Sea region became more intense. Whether for these or other reasons, the settlement was ultimately abandoned and the marsh reclaimed the area.
Tomorrow is another metric century into Poznan and a rest day. Again, Steward and I will appreciate a day off the bikes.
13 Aug 09, Thursday 8 pm, Poznan, 103.8 km
It rained yesterday evening and looked overcast when I awoke to do my morning stretch, but the roads proved to be dry and the sky had lightened some by the time we were on the road to Poznan. From the beginning a strong wind was blowing with a mostly western component. Our route was west by southwest so we expected to be bucking it soon. But to start we headed south and with a forest to the west, a smooth road with little traffic and a temperature that made you consider a windbreaker, it was a perfect cycling morning.
All too soon, though, we turned into the wind and watched our speedometers drop - it could make for a long day. Today was again mostly agricultural land we were cycling through. We did ride through a few forests, always a treat, but not as many as a few days ago. I noticed that the forests the last two days look more like those you might see in the U.S. Midwest in that they had much denser undergrowth than what we saw further north. I can't tell if it's a natural distinction or if certain forests are kept clear for ease of harvesting (though we have not yet seen a harvested forest).
About a third of the way to Poznan we skirted Gniezno, the first capital of Poland, a city that has played key roles in various stages of Polish history. Shortly after Gniezno, we were passing through a small village when a young woman on a push bike smoking a cigarette pulled out a short way ahead. We passed her, but shortly, after we left the village, we saw her turn out of the forest ahead of us. She was making decent time and, just as we were pulling up to pass her again, she took a forest trail straight where we were curving on the road. After a quarter kilometer, we made another turn and saw her again emerge from the wood even further ahead. This happened yet one more time, and we were just about ready to pass her again when we entered the next village and she pulled into a yard. Evidently, there is a more direct route on a dirt path through the woods between villages. It looked as if the trail might have been an old rail line. I'm sure the young lady was feeling smug.
Besides battling the wind, it soon became apparent we might also get wet. The clouds had dominated the sky all day, but most weren't threatening. Unfortunately we were headed for the tail end of what looked like a storm system. A couple of times earlier in the day we had covered routes which had recently seen rain. As soon as we started feeling drops, we began looking for possible shelters and, just as we pulled into a covered bus stop on the outskirts of a village, the rain came. It wasn't a soaker, but we would've gotten wet, and it left the road wet. Shortly after the system passed over we were back on our bikes with no more than ten minutes having passed. Now we were feeling smug. In fact, we only experienced a few sprinkles the rest of the day.
Although we battled the wind most of the day, at least we weren't battling traffic. This might have been our most rural route yet even though most of the roads were in very good shape. This situation changed as we neared Poznan and, for the last seven or eight kilometers, we were in heavy traffic. The last kilometer or so we used my tour book map to find our hotel.
After a decent meal of chicken "Gordon blue" (according to the menu), I am set to plan my day off in Poznan. I'll provide my findings and a little history next time.
14 Aug 09, Friday 8:40 pm, Poznan
This is the first time since we started riding that a hotel began breakfast before 8 am and, even though this is a break day, I took advantage of it. It was rather cool and very breezy when I went out to explore Poznan, and I was glad I wasn't on my bike. I wandered around the city center taking advantage of the wonderful morning light for photographs waiting for the tourist info center to open. When it did, I found that the only English guided walking tour is on Saturday afternoons so I instead took a handful of self-guided tour brochures to see if they might supplement the list I made from my guide book last night.
After finding that the town hall which is also the Poznan History Museum doesn't open until noon, I crossed the bridge over the Warta River to Ostrów Tumski (or Cathedral Island). This is where Poznan has its roots. This small island formed by the Warta and its tributary, the Cybina River, was an easily defended settlement in the 9th century. In the 13th century, the city expanded to the west and the island lost its importance. However, a Cathedral had been built there around 968 so the church remained the major presence on the island. The Cathedral on the island today has been rebuilt and added to numerous times, most recently after it was badly damaged in 1945.
I am sometimes surprised when such a large structure seems so small inside. I actually counted the seats of those attending services. The nave held two rows of seventeen pews which could each hold four adults comfortably. That's not a lot of folks for such a large building. To be fair, the church also has twelve small side altars running along three sides of the church including behind the main altar. The church was also a plain Jane compared to the baroque Parish Church just south of the main square I had poked my nose into earlier.
For three zlotys (about a buck) you can explore the crypt beneath the Cathedral. Here I was somewhat disappointed. Except for several plaques with English translation talking about the different phases of the church's construction and history, the crypt was anticlimactic. Mostly you saw several sections of the original 10th century brickwork though there were some actual crypts in a room barred from tourist traffic. Many of the tombs had likenesses of the people entombed therein as I have seen often before. However, most of these sculpted images depicted the person lying on one elbow almost in a lounging position. I'm sure this was done so an observer gets a clear picture of what the person looked like, but still it seems odd.
Just across from the Cathedral is a strange little church, very tall, but with a severely truncated nave. In fact, I read that construction had been interrupted for some reason and this was the result. I was keen to see what it looked like from the inside but found it locked. There was an active archeological dig at one side of the church and I had a quick peek at that.
I next headed back to the main town square, a bustling, friendly place, clearly the heart of Poznan and sought out the Museum of the Wielkopolska Uprising. Although most of the museum has no English translations and the old telephones throughout the exhibit that provide speeches and commentary from that time are in Polish, there was one computerized display in English that provided the gist of the story.
In November 1918 when WW I ended, Germany still occupied much of Poland, in particular, the region called Wielkopolska or Greater Poland. President Wilson went to Versailles himself to promote self-determination for nations and was able to force through his famous Fourteen Points. One of these declared, "An independent Polish state should be erected which should include territory inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant."
The Poles of Wielkopolska were not willing to bet on diplomacy and instead took matters into their own hands. On 28 December 1918, they rose up against the German occupiers and, often led by Polish troops who had been conscripted to fight for Germany, began taking over town after town throughout the region. By January 1919, they had taken Poznan and even used its airport to fly bombing raids on German soil! A ceasefire was signed in February 1919 although resistance continued past this date. The Poles maneuver proved successful. On 28 June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles awarded Wielkopolska to the newly formed Poland.
The next chapter of this story is either not so sanguine or very much so depending on which definition of "sanguine" you choose (happy vs. bloody). The harsh conditions on Germany levied by the Treaty of Versailles, many believe, gave rise to Adolph Hitler and his Nazi Party. After "repatriating" lands with little international reaction, Germany swept across Poland in 1939 to begin WW II. Many had believed that the Treaty of Versailles had created Poland as a country merely to serve as a buffer between Germany and Russia, but now the two conspired to eliminate it. Germany, for its part, hunted down, often with the help of Germans living in Poland, those involved in the 1918 Wielkopolska Uprising and either executed them or imprisoned them which amounted to much the same thing.
However, had the Poles not taken charge of their own destiny in 1918, it is doubtful that the map of Poland today would include this lovely region. As it turned out President Wilson's high ideals about self-determination at Versailles were treated as so much pabulum by the other Allied Nations, particularly England and France who outmaneuvered Wilson at every turn and ended up dividing Europe and the Middle East into spheres of influence. It might be said that many of the current problems in the Middle East might not have developed had Wilson been in better health and had he been more politically astute (of course, we would almost certainly be dealing with another set of issues). Yes, the Poles were right not to trust their fate to the diplomats at Versailles.
Still waiting for the Poznan History Museum to open, I walked to beautiful Park Micklewiesa with a grand line of old and massive plane trees (we call them sycamores) to see the Monument to the Victims of June 1956. In 1956, Poznan metal workers demanded better conditions and when their demands were ignored and their representatives were distained, they struck - the first mass protest in the Soviet Bloc. A quarter of the city's population, 100,000 people, was soon involved. City officials continued to ignore the strikers until things began to get out of hand. To put down the now threatening riots, Polish troops were brought in from Wroclaw and told they were putting down a German riot. The dead and wounded were greater than the similar incident in Gdansk, but has been underreported until recently. The monument, two large crosses tied together at the top, is a stark reminder of this grim past.
The town hall dominates the main square both by its size and its pleasing appearance. The current building was constructed from 1550-1560 after its predecessor had burned. The tower was replaced in the 1780s after the collapse of the previous one. The town hall now serves as the Historical Museum of Poznan. As expected, the museum contains many pictures, documents and paraphernalia of the city's past. The first room I entered confused me though. In cases throughout the room were those huge metal necklaces you oftentimes see in pictures of European burghers or mayors (think the mayor of Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz) - the kind that look like they could be used as body armor. Behind them on the walls were a number of target boards - at first I thought they were dart boards - but on closer inspection, it appears that wooden corks had been shot at the boards. Many of the 'bullets" had stuck into the boards while some had just left holes. Each board was decorated with a different picture on the front and some had over a hundred shots in them. I have no idea what these boards might signify and why they would be important enough to be displayed so prominently. Unfortunately, I saw no explanation in English or otherwise.
One story I read concerning the town hall in two different versions, and which may be apocryphal in any case, concerns two Billy goats. It seems the goats were procured for the feast at the ground breaking ceremony for the town hall. The goats escaped and were found butting their heads together at the site of the new town hall. The city fathers found this amusing and directed the architect to add mechanical goats to the clock tower. So now, at noon, mechanical versions of the wayward goats emerge from closed doors to butt heads twelve times as the clock chimes. The townsfolk like this little parable so much that you will find the images of the two goats wherever you go in the city - sort of like city mascots.
My last site for the day was the National Museum which has a large collection primarily of paintings, most of which are from Polish artists though the museum claims the largest Spanish collection in Poland.
Tomorrow we start a two-day ride to Wroclaw for another two-day break. We're hoping, as always, for cooperative weather.
15 Aug 09, Saturday 4 pm, Gostyn, 70.8 km
An uneventful day. After a pleasant breakfast at the Poznan Hotel Ibis, Stewart and I mounted our metal steeds and rode straight to Gostyn with only a couple of short stops arriving at 1 pm, our earliest arrival. It was a beautiful day with the sun drifting in and out of the clouds and a light breeze blowing. Our second stop was just five kilometers outside Gostyn where we sat on a grassy roadside berm under trees resembling our cottonwoods listening to the wind play through the leaves. It was the nicest riding day we've had in awhile.
Our hotel in Gostyn seems nearly empty as does the town on this holyday of the BVM's (i.e., Blessed Virgin Mary's) ascension into heaven. In this overwhelmingly Catholic country just about everything is closed. After check-in and a shower, we walked past two small neighborhood skleps to the centrum (town center) only to find it dead. A couple of lody (ice cream) shops provided the only action in town. By the time we passed the skleps again, both were closed; we'd missed them by minutes. We returned to the hotel and communicated our need to our receptionist who made us understand where a sklep open until 4 pm might be found about a half kilometer away. This time we came away with sufficient liquid and treats for the afternoon and evening.
Luckily, the restaurant in the hotel will be open tonight because we saw no other restaurants on our walk. It looks like the hotel staff is preparing for a banquet, and I heard wedding music being tested over the intercom; I suspect we'll have a noisy evening. Oh well, I've been down this path before. I just hope it doesn't go too late. One odd thing about this hotel is the three large pictures of naked, busty ladies gracing the lobby walls. I wonder what that is about.
Tomorrow we have a longish ride to Wroclaw where we are scheduled for a two-day break. I'll be working on my "to visit" list this evening so I'll be able to hit the ground running.
By the way, it's been fun to channel surf to see what the Poles are watching on the tube. It is a mixture with from eight to maybe twenty channels of programming depending on the hotel. Most programming, of course, is in Polish. U.S. TV programs or movies are usually dubbed into Polish. The original English is still there, but soft so that the Polish overlays it. Generally the same person dubs all the voices, male and female and so far, it has always been a guy. Most of the U.S. movies have been at least several years old, but last night George Clooney's Leatherheads was on, and it was subtitled, not dubbed - it's about a year old. In the larger hotels, English versions of CNN, BBC and Euro World are often available, so we've been keeping up with the news periodically. Today, I watched the international version of the Daily Show which was fun. Some of the programming is local to Poland as it is neither dubbed nor subtitled, and it looks pretty good: movies, game shows, talk shows, serials, etc.
16 Aug 09, Sunday 8:30 pm, Wroclaw, 117.8 km
It turns out two wedding receptions were held in our hotel yesterday evening so both dining halls were full. When we asked about supper, there was a quick consultation among the staff, and we were told they could feed us as long as what they had was okay: Wiener schnitzel, boiled potatoes and a slaw salad. We surmised this is what they were serving the wedding parties. Wiener schnitzel is never my first choice. I have had too many tasteless, overcooked specimens, but this one was not bad. The presentation was surprisingly nice based on the bare bones appearance of the hotel. One of the receptions lasted until at least 3:30 am. Thank goodness for ear plugs! Despite the late night revelry I slept decently.
The sky had not a cloud to be seen when we set off this morning. However, the day was warm at the beginning and got hot, the heat soon producing puffy clouds here and there. We had longer mileage today and, what with a persistent headwind around midday, and quite a few mild hills, the ride turned into a groaner. We finally showed up at our Wroclaw hotel after weaving our way through the city to end on the city's ring road right at 6 pm. The final several kilometers through Wroclaw were challenging. The city's street system is like a maze and we had fourteen directional changes once we hit the northern border. We also had to pick the best riding surface since none were very good - sidewalk, cobblestone, broken pavement - we tried them all while watching the stoplights and traffic and reading our directions. A real adrenal rush. We were just lucky it was late on a Sunday afternoon. I was pooped when we arrived and still am after cleaning up and eating a nice Polish oriental meal.
I made a list of things to see and do in Wroclaw last night and found many museums and attractions are closed Mondays and Tuesdays, the two days we have available. But there are other attractions and a bus/walking tour of the city in English on Monday mornings. My first priority will be to get to the tour office when it opens at 9 am to see if I can join a tour. If not, I still have my list.
17 Aug 09, Monday 4 pm, Wroclaw
When riding to Wroclaw yesterday we passed from greater Poland (Wielkopolska) into Silesia, a region that predates Poland itself and includes portions of Germany and the Czech Republic. Wroclaw (pronounced vrots-wahf in Polish - no kidding) is the major urban center in Lower Silesia (Upper Silesia consists of the mountainous area along the Czech border; 'upper' and lower' refer to altitude, not longitude). It sits on the Odra River and is so rife with canals and bridges that some have likened it to Venice (a real stretch).
Surprisingly, Wroclaw like Posnan, was founded on a Cathedral Island (Ostrów Tumski) in the 7th or 8th century. However, this island was connected to the mainland in the 19th century. Wroclaw has had a checkered history. It has been known by five different names (most recently Breslau) and has belonged to four countries. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. This is reflected in the city's architecture where often the old and the new are combined in one building. But it's not only the architecture that changed. The city had been Prussian for a long period prior to WW II. With that war 30% of the population died in the fighting and the Jewish population either fled or was decimated as a result of the Nazi practices. The peace brought even greater change as Poland's border was shifted west such that Breslau, soon to be Wroclaw again, moved back into Poland, something neither the Poles nor the Germans thought would ever happen as the region had not been under Polish control since the 14th century. The Germans living in the city were repatriated to Germany, and a large population of the Ukraine city of Lviv (Lwow in Polish) migrated to Wroclaw since Lviv had been ceded to the Soviet Union as Poland's eastern border was also redrawn. (By the way, this same boundary shift, a concession to Stalin by Churchill and Roosevelt, is the one where the free city of Danzig was moved back into Poland as Gdansk.) This change must have been very confusing for the Polish citizenry especially since their new country was immediately closed behind the Iron Curtain of Soviet influence.
Today, I headed to Cathedral Island where it all began as a stronghold (islands are more easily defended) in the 7th or 8th century of a tribe of western Slavs called the Slezanie. The first Cathedral was built between 1224 and 1590 but was badly damaged during WW II. The reconstruction is more obvious than with many I have seen here in Poland. Not only does the Cathedral reflect different architectural styles, but you can easily differentiate the brickwork from the different eras. I have noticed this on several of the major buildings here in Wroclaw, including the massive town hall. I think it gives the buildings a historical distinction and provides a permanent reminder of the horrors of war. Once again I was surprised at the small seating capacity of the Cathedral.
From Cathedral Island I recrossed the tiny Sand Island which sports its own enormous 14th century Church of Our Lady on the Sand and headed to the University of Wroclaw. There I visited a popular attraction, an ornate Baroque room with audio explanation on an MP3 player, the first time I've used this popular new device.
Wroclaw's rynek or market square is second in size in Poland only to Kraków's. It acts like a magnet for tourists and locals alike. We had supper there last night, and I crossed it four times today in my going and coming and always found something new to stop and ogle, from the enormous town hall to the quaint Hansel and Gretel Houses in front of the huge Church of St. Elizabeth to the always fascinating Polish shop fronts in freshly bright colors with ornate drawings to the uniquely Wroclaw gnome sculptures which catch your eye in the most unusual places. I've spotted maybe a half dozen of the whimsical creatures, but one brochure states they've catalogued 37 to date. Though they have been enthusiastically adopted by the city, the gnomes, which first began appearing in 2005, are the mark of the Orange Movement, an underground protest movement that was active during the Soviet era.
My next destination was to a different kind of sculpture called Passage (also known as the Anonymous Pedestrians). It depicts seven pedestrians disappearing or being swallowed up by the pavement only to reappear on the other side of the street. This is also a political work that has grown beyond its original intent. It was erected to mark the anniversary of the declaration of martial law in 1981, but I suspect most of the interested passers-by will never see beyond the fascinating physicality of the sculpture.
From there to yet another set of bronze sculptures, but this time animals: pigs, chickens, rabbits, etc. on a delightful side street. But this sculpture too is, in its way political. It's called the Memorial to Slaughtered Animals.
The tour I hoped for this morning came to naught. I was told at the official tourist bureau that the company closed last year and that the only English tour was given on Saturdays now. C'est la vie. I'm getting used to the do-it-yourself tour.
18 Aug 09, Tuesday 4:30 pm, Wroclaw
Around midnight a thunderstorm passed over and I could hear rain pelting my window. I had thought the shower short-lived until I went out this morning and saw puddles in places. Maybe the weather will clear up for our next riding segment, six days to Kraków beginning tomorrow.
My main interest today was the Raclawice Panorama, the one site (besides the rynek) that all the tourist brochures say is "must see." Housed in a large rotunda built expressly for this purpose the painting is termed a cyclorama. The canvas measures 15 meters high by 114 meters long and is displayed in a continuous circle around the rotunda. While this style was popular in the 19th century, not many remain in existence - one might liken it to the 360 degree theater once so popular at Disneyland.
The canvas depicts the battle of Raclawice northeast of Kraków on 4 April 1794 when the Polish army sought to free themselves of Russian rule. The battle went to the Polish army, but it was a short-lived victory and Poland was divided up by Russia, Austria, and Prussian in 1795 and disappeared as an independent country until after WW I (when, ironically, a similar event occurred, but more on this later). This was the third time Poland had been divided up, but this time it was particularly sad because the elected officials had finally gotten some backbone and on 3 May 1791 had produced a new constitution that provide rights to the townsfolk and peasants while reducing the power of the magnates. It was a giant step towards what are now considered essentials for a modern country … but it was not to be.
The painting was done in Lviv in the late 19th century. After WW II the painting was sent to Wroclaw where it was stored until 1985. It has proven to be a very popular exhibit with long lines a common phenomenon especially during holiday season. The battle has proven to be an inspiration for Poles through their many tribulations as a country and a people.
I was more impressed with the program than I had expected. It is very lifelike. The visitors are in the middle as if standing on a hillock overlooking the battle action happening all around them. In the foreground, rocks, trees, roads, etc. have been built so as to flow into the painting. The figures are of the right size and the lighting manipulated to appear to cast shadows so it's hard to say where the props end and the canvas begins. The audio is presented in Polish, but other languages are available from handsets. The narrative sets the stage and then explains the action happening in every quadrant. By the end you feel as if you have some understanding of what must have been a chaotic battle.
I'm sure this battle sprang to Polish … and Russian minds in August 1920 when the Russian army swept across eastern Poland and was on the outskirts of Warsaw and threatening the walled city of Zamosc. With Germany in its still weakened state and France and other Western European nations with no stomach for further war, some observers felt that, if Russia overran Poland, they would not stop until they reached the Atlantic. But the Polish army, with significant help from irregulars, turned back two experienced Russian armies in as many days. Great was the celebration in Poland and also in Lithuania and the Ukraine, but alas, it was again just a stop gap. Lithuania and the Ukraine would be swallowed up by Russia and Poland would be the first real casualty of WW II when the German army would eliminate the country yet again in 1939.
Just to the east of the Panorama is the Monument to the Victims of the Katyn Massacre. Just as Hitler's Germany wrought their vengeance on the instigators of the Wielkopolska Uprising, so did the Soviet Union seek to eliminate problems before they could occur by murdering 22,000 Polish army officers and other leaders on Stalin's order in 1940. If you're going to subjugate a people, you systematically eliminate their leaders. The monument cannot be misunderstood: the Angel of Death wields a sword high above the Matron of the Polish Homeland, Katyn Pieta who holds a fallen soldier with a single bullet hole in the back of his head.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing. I found a large supermarket in a super-mall complex and browsed all the goods, picking up a few treats for tonight and on the road (read "Snickers"). I spent some time in a bookstore and found a decent selection of English language books but nothing that grabbed me enough to want to carry it on my bike (I still have a couple hundred pages left in Michener's Poland). And I made use of the hotel's small gym and nice steam room. I figured I could use some pampering.
19 Aug 09, Wednesday, Szczawno-Zdrój, 99.4 km
I felt as good on my bike today as I have the whole trip. Don't know why. Maybe it was a two-day rest after just two days of riding to Wroclaw or the beautiful fresh day after the front passed through or the excellent night's sleep last night or the fact that my sitz-bones didn't hurt for the first time on the ride or maybe I'm near maximum in my physical biorhythm cycle or the change in scenery as we hit our first real hills. Regardless, the odometer count seemed to fly by, especially during the morning. We also seemed to make better time, although we still got in just after 4 pm. Anyway, it was a good day on the bike.
We were a bit slow getting out of Wroclaw as we chose to ride on the sidewalks versus the street. Many city streets have brick bike paths marked on the sidewalks and sometimes these paths are signed as mandatory. However, regardless of the signage, many bikers use the sidewalks with or without marked bike lanes. Sometimes it just feels safer. Today we played it safe getting out of Wroclaw.
We had been on the road only a short while when we noticed a good-sized hill off in the distance. It caught our eye because it is, quite frankly, the first hill we have seen. Sure we have gone up and down inclines, some even steep, but this was a mini-mountain sitting there off in the distance.
As we drew nearer, it seemed smaller rather than larger, and we were sure we would be directed around it. As we got really close, we began pedaling uphill. We could see it was actually a string of hills and that we were headed into them. Then, just before lunch, we crossed the shoulder of the hill after climbing through a thick forest which cleared as we hit the top of the pass to give us a long vista, again the first of its type we've seen on this trip. Although it was not nearly as grand as many such sights I have seen, it was a nice change to what we've seen this ride.
A short while later we stopped for lunch (for me a liter of juice) and immediately afterwards we climbed another decent hill, maybe nine kilometers worth and again through forest. We did this maybe twice more before reaching our destination and twice I slipped into my granny gear as we neared the top. I suspect this will become more routine over the next few days.
Tonight we are very near the Czech border, and tomorrow we skirt it as we travel even further south before turning east towards Kraków. At some point we cross over the Sudentes or Southern Mountains so we can expect more hill climbs.
Today we came upon our first root vegetable road kill, two beets with greens still attached and, less than a kilometer down the road, a potato. I have no further comment at this new development.
Stewart didn't have as good a day as I had, but I suspect the very good meal we just ate will put him right again. I had a pork cutlet and onions in a cream sauce, a good salad, fries and black current juice which has become my regular evening drink. I snagged an almond Magnum Bar from a sklep on the way home for dessert. I should sleep well tonight if the seemingly large dog population surrounding this nice little pension keeps quiet. It might be another night for ear plugs.
20 Aug 09, Thursday, 8:15 pm, Klodzko, 74 km
The guy who had the room between Stewart and me last night had an impressive snore. I didn't notice until I pulled the earplugs out this morning; I had inserted them because it was noisy outside when I turned out the light. Stewart said the young folks across the street were still going at around 3 am. I didn't hear a thing; these new earplugs have been marvelous.
Piotr had noted in his e-mail remarks on the route that today's ride was the only "mountain stage." If this is as tough as it gets, we should have no trouble. However, we weren't thinking this thought early in the ride. At a kilometer from the pension I was already in my granny gear. The Poles don't mess around when building a road over a hill; they go straight to the toughest grades. We had maybe a half dozen climbs of at least five kilometers today and many shorter than that. I found myself slipping into granny gear frequently. The first time, we were passing a ski resort when the last quarter mile tilted towards an incline like you might see in the top section of the crest road in the Sandias outside Albuquerque. I was nearing the top when a local rider shot past on a road bike. He was skinny as a rail, probably thirty years younger and carrying no additional weight, but I still tried to pace him until I remembered I still had fifty kilometers of mountain riding in front of me.
Of course mountain roads also have their compensations. We had many great views, very different from our previous riding, and we had some great downhill runs. They never quite compensate for the energy you expend by climbing but they sure are fun. At some point today, I suspect we were looking into the Czech Republic. This mountain chain forms the border between the two countries and our route was less than ten kilometers from the border.
Unfortunately, as those who spend any time in the mountains know, trails and roads generally don't go straight, and directions can get all confused. The signage was rather poor on our back country roads today, and we got off route more than once trying to decipher the directions, the map, and using our dead reckoning skills. We backtracked after climbing a couple kilometers once and found ourselves on the wrong, but parallel, road another time, but each time we just charted our own way back to the right route.
Our problems didn't end in town as Piotr's recommended hotel was full and so was our next choice. With few choices available we were getting concerned (a large group had filled the previous two hotels), but our third try proved successful … and it was closer to the town's fortress than either of the other two.
Although we finally got checked in around 4 pm, I still wanted to check out Klodzko Fortress, the best preserved fortress (of its kind) in Poland, so I took a quick shower, gathered my things and set off. The castle was built beginning in the 17th century and took a good two hundred years to complete. Its massive structure sits atop a hill overlooking the town center. From the ramparts you can see miles in all directions. I tried to find a good camera angle for the fortress, but it has been there so long that it melds into the vegetation and the hill itself. Inside I saw a photo taken from a bird's eye view, and it's here you get a feeling for its true size and how it dominates the landscape. The walls at the top are twelve feet thick and get progressively thicker as they go down.
The tour book says the real draw for the fortress is the network of over forty kilometers of tunnels beneath it. Although some of the tunnels served for communication, storage and shelter, some were used in a way that was new to me. The Dutch architect had tunnels dug radially up to five hundred meters beyond the castle walls. The termini were stuffed with gunpowder. The idea was that if the castle was besieged, the defenders would wait for the besiegers to move their artillery over a section of the tunnel and then detonate the gunpowder. Ingenious! That is, it would be if they could prevent the enemy sappers (i.e., tunnel builders) from finding the tunnels first. The guide book says the system was never used, but whether because the castle was never under siege or some other reason, it is mute.
For a fee you can join a forty minute tour of "the labyrinth" as the system is called, but I had little inclination to listen to a forty minute presentation in Polish so I opted for a self-guided adventure. There is also a six hundred meter tunnel that runs beneath old town and surfaces near the castle entrance. This walk you can do on your own. I had expected a route more or less directly from point A to point B. In this I was seriously mistaken. The route had so many twists and turns that I was very soon disoriented. In addition, there were thirty to forty side tunnels (mostly very short) and quite a few small rooms to explore. A few had implements of war or torture or just information. As you might expect, everything was damp and, though well-lit and large enough to accommodate an average-sized person, after awhile the tunnels became a bit claustrophobic.
I heard a family well ahead of me at the start and passed a couple midway through, but most of the way I was alone and could hear nothing. I was surprised that the lively town I had strolled through was just above me, but you would never know it. I speculated on what would happen if the lights went out. In total darkness, could a person, using logic and common sense, find his way out? Because of the number of rooms and side passages, it would be tough. One method might be to continuously touch either the left or right wall and follow that wall through every side passage and room, but it would take determination to follow it to the end. As I neared the far end, I thought I caught the strains of Ave Maria and, sure enough, the attendant at the far end was playing it. I thought it ironic if it was coincidence (though it might have been planned) because it has often been used as a symbol of hope as one emerges from dark times (e.g., Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain).
A last note on the fortress: I'm sure the builders had a plan for these mega-structures based on what is needed and lessons learned from other successful and failed efforts. However, this fortress seemed almost haphazard. There seemed to be lots of wasted space and innumerable nooks and crannies. Kids must have had a field day growing up in one like this. It would be illuminating to see a fortress renovated exactly as it might have been when it was inhabited with the functions of different rooms and areas labeled as such. Walking through this one left me with more questions than answers.
A miscellaneous cultural observation: Stewart mentioned that he has seen several (mostly) young men with a haircut he calls a mullet and we would call a Mohawk (though the sides here are not usually clean shaven). From my Michener book on Poland, I read that early male inhabitants of Poland wore their hair just like this and speculated that, instead of a new fad, maybe it's a throwback to their Polish heritage now that they truly have their country back. … well, hey, it might be true.
21 Aug 09, Friday 8:30 pm, Krapkowice, 114.7 km
A long, hot day. It took us less than two kilometers today before we hit one of those steep hills we experienced yesterday, and shortly thereafter I was back in my granny gear. For the first twenty kilometers or so, I don't think we hit a level spot except maybe the tangent points at the top and bottom of each sinusoidal curve the road had become. When I reached the top of a hill, I was moving from granny gear to my highest gear almost as fast as I could shift and, at the bottom, it was the same in reverse. From six to seven kph to a maximum of 54 kph in less than twenty seconds and, again, the reverse at the bottom as the hills became so steep so fast you got very little help from your downward momentum. And they just kept coming, maybe ten hills in that period. They weren't particularly long, but they were wicked. And finally there came a hill where I was one off my granny gear and, from then on, the hills began evening out, and I didn't used my granny gear for the rest of the day. Just like that our terrain went from continuous hills to the relatively flat countryside we had ridden through until two days ago.
The ride until lunch was a busier road than what we've ridden before (except for short stretches). Even when we were simulating a rollercoaster, we had cars and trucks zipping by at uncomfortable speeds. Sections of this road had good surfaces, but one long section was hell. They had paved it with inferior asphalt, the kind that produces buckles at the side of the roadway caused by heavy traffic on hot roads I suspect. Unfortunately, the buckle is where we are supposed to be riding, so you must make constant and instantaneous decisions based on the condition of the roadway, the presence of traffic coming up behind you, the presence and condition of any shoulder, etc. It makes the ride tedious and scary. On the opposite end of the spectrum, one road section (less than ten kilometers) had a wide, smooth-surfaced shoulder that was like heaven in comparison to what came before. I hope this is the wave of the future for Polish roads.
After a brief lunch stop at a convenient sklep, the last half of the day was on mostly good surfaces and back roads - much more enjoyable.
I suspect the temperature was in the upper eighties today and humid, like an August day in the U.S. Midwest. We were definitely ready to dismount when we finally found the dormitory in a sports complex Piotr had chosen. The rooms are bare bones and no meals are provided so we stopped at a sklep to stock up on breakfast items before searching out a restaurant for our evening meal. We've had sufficient and, in most cases, ample breakfast fare at every hotel to date, so tomorrow will be a lesser meal - at least for me. Stewart has learned his way around a Polish sklep by putting together his lunch every day. I usually just get some juice and maybe a Snickers candy bar. It took me about double his time to select tomorrow morning's repast. If I'm a bit light, I can always supplement it along the way.
Today we skirted the Czech border. Tomorrow we continue almost due east and just a tad north on our way to Kraków still three days distant.
22 Aug 09, Saturday 8 pm, Czestochowa, 108.9 km
A group of young folks partied until the wee hours at the sports complex last night. Strangely though, the music sounded more traditional than pop. It would be interesting to know what was going on, but the place was deserted when we left so we just left the keys in the doors. My ear plugs worked wonderfully well - once in and swollen to fill my ear, I hear nothing.
Today was another metric century, but we had heavy cloud cover all day that kept the temperature down. We thought we might get wet and did feel a misty sprinkle at one point but always seemed to be a step ahead of or behind any rain. We began on back roads which had little traffic this being Saturday. However, for the last thirty kilometers to Czestochowa (pronounced chen-sto-ho-vah) we biked a busy highway there being no obvious alternative. More cars and even trucks came closer than we've previously experienced - maybe because we were riding on a two-digit road that they consider a "car" road. However, we did see more serious riders on this stretch than we've seen before and maybe this too is because there are no good alternatives.
When we reached Czestochowa we found the obscure Dom Piotr had recommended, but the brother who manages the rooms was out for maybe an hour (evidently a religious organization runs the Dom). Not wanting to wait, we found a chain hotel that had rooms. Czestochowa is Poland's major pilgrimage site, home to the Black Madonna. The Madonna is housed in its own chapel in the Monastery of Jasna Góra which sits high on a hill above the town. By far it is the dominant feature of the town. Just like the Black Virgin of the Monastery of Montserrat in Spain, the Madonna is black because of candle smoke and dirt build up and, like the Black Virgin, various miracles are attributed to her, not least of which is the survival of the monastery during the Swedish invasion in 1655-66, one of the few places in Poland to survive undamaged (of course, the Madonna had been moved from the monastery for safe keeping, but that doesn't figure into the story).
My hotel room faces the monastery which is maybe two football fields away as the crow flies, partially hidden by the intervening forest. In fact, as I write this, I can clearly hear the speeches and hymns of some event at the monastery.
Piotr had suggested we try to make the veiling ceremony for the Black Madonna at 9:20 pm but, although I would like to see it, I think I'll pass. I walked to the monastery after a shower this afternoon and it was packed. A mass or some other ceremony was in progress simultaneously in the Madonna's chapel and the adjacent basilica. The seats were all full, people lined the walls and filled the nooks and crannies, and many people stood or sat in the monastery's courtyard listening to the ceremony being piped into it. I suspect any location with a view of the veiling ceremony tonight was taken before we rode into town.
There must be some special event taking place. Seating for hundreds has been set up surrounding one section of the monastery and, while I was there, a group of pilgrims with their own band led a parade into the monastery. I doubt it is just an extension of the Holyday of the Assumption of Mary into heaven (15 August) which is the main feast day here, but you never know. From what I observed at the monastery, the monks were keeping all the plates spinning and all the balls in the air. There were many booths selling things, people were queued up for tickets for I don't know what (but it was popular because hundreds of people were in line), tours were being given, speeches were being made, the aforementioned parade was in progress and lots of folks were just milling around. It was a busy place. However, I still made an effort to slink my way through to see some of the sights. The interiors of the basilica and chapel were appropriately grand (baroque primarily) and the several side rooms I explored had loads of interesting paintings including a graphic depiction of Jesus' suffering in the Stations of the Cross - we're talking large paintings and in-your-face wounds. Another depiction of the Stations of the Cross in bronze statues, maybe twice life-size, surrounds the monastery on one side. The museum had just closed so I missed seeing Lech Walesa's donated Nobel Peace Price and a cross made from the steel of the World Trade Center.
Well, I wonder if I'll need my ear plugs again tonight. The monastery has a very effective sound system, and I can hear every word spoken and sung, but I doubt they party until 3 am.
23 Aug 09, Sunday 7:30 pm, Ogrodzieniec (Podzancze), 80.8 km
It rained last night, but the roads were almost dry by the time we rode out of Czestochowa this morning. We were on mostly back roads, and the one road that felt more major had little traffic but a great surface. After the rain last night, it stayed cool all day. The sun was mostly behind big fluffy clouds, and the wind was mild and usually at our backs. So our day's riding was exceptionally pleasant. Evidently other bikers thought so too, as we saw more road bikes today than we've seen cumulatively throughout the trip. Of course, Sunday does bring out the bikers, but our large total today was due to a group of twenty or thirty riders that passed us before we left the city. It looked like a club ride. We saw the same group, or maybe a different, equally large one on a pretty back road. They were coming downhill at a fast clip so we didn't have time to warn them of a feisty dog we'd just passed.
We did a one kilometer section of one of those bike paths through the forest I mentioned earlier. The surface was mostly pressed gravel and the width of the path had been uniformly established so it felt like any bike path in the States. We thoroughly enjoyed the segment and would not hesitate to try another. I should mention that Poland has adopted the universal European road symbols. A bicycle against a blue background means that the route is compulsory for bicycles. We have usually seen these on a sidewalk that has a bike path incorporated to give the bikes a safe place to ride on a very busy street. When the same sign appears with a red line through it, it means the compulsion has been lifted - sounds just the opposite of our signs in the States doesn't it? Anyway, this woodland bike path had a compulsion sign on it so we really didn't have much of a choice.
Just before we entered Czestochowa yesterday, we entered the region called Malopolska or Little Poland. After Bohemia defeated Silesia in the mid-14th century, King Kazimierz III Wielki (or as the west knows him, Casimer III the Great) fortified his southern frontier by building a string of fortresses from Czestochowa to Kraków, a distance of about one hundred kilometers. The Bohemians never penetrated this line, but the Swedish invasion from the north did considerable damage to many of these forts, and later conflicts shut them down.
One such ruin, Ogrodziemiec Castle, is the centerpiece of the small town where we will spend the night in a B&B kind of place (but without the second "B" for breakfast). It's basically townsfolk trying to make a few extra zlotys on the tourist trade. Since we got in a bit earlier today I had the chance to tour the ruins, and they are indeed impressive … and being exploited to the hilt. The castle was built out of the dolomite formations found in this area. Some of the extant walls seem to grow right out of solid rock. However, the best impression is in the castle museum where three large models of the castle as it might have appeared at various times in history are on display.
For the price of admission you can crawl all over the castle remains following stone walkways with metal rails and spiral stairways to the castle ramparts and to various rooms and courtyards and even up into one of the remaining towers. I'm sure everything is reinforced and up to safety standards, but it feels as if you are exploring a skeletal building just after a bombing raid.
The castle was moderately busy while I was there and, because the staircases are so narrow, I sometimes waited (with maybe twenty other people) while an additional twenty people climbed up or down the staircase as there was only one way in and out. It could get a bit claustrophobic. At one point waiting to get to the top level of the tower, a bunch of us were crammed against the wall as, one after another, people kept climbing down a steep ladder from a small hole in the tower floor. It reminded me of one of those clown cars at the circus which continues to disgorge clowns long after the cars capacity has surely been reached. When I finally climbed to top platform, its diminutive size drove home the clown car analogy, and now we had to wait as people continued to climb up the ladder to look around and try to find a place to stand. I can't imagine what this must be like when they are really busy!
The castle also had a torture room with helpful English signage (no waterboarding was evident), a room with items of period dress, and a stable area where three guys in authentic period clothes rode beautiful horses to demonstrate their lance work through several feats of skill. In the background some other guys were free-climbing one of the tall dolomite monoliths. Everywhere in the large open grassy area within the walls people were relaxing and kids were playing. In short, a good time was being had by all on this gorgeous Sunday afternoon.
A hiking trail called Trail of the Eagles' Nest is purported to provide the best view of this area from Czestochowa to Kraków passing many of the ruined castles and Poland's best natural wonders. Piotr's notes for tomorrow's ride have us biking a portion of this trail he calls "the most beautiful valley in Poland." Although Google-map doesn't show the bike trail, we will look for it on the way to Kraków where we will have our last two rest days.
24 Aug 09, Monday 4:45 pm, Kraków, 73.2 km
When I awoke just after 6 am, a low cloud hung over town. The streets weren't wet, but it looked cold and miserable, not a day to make you want to bike. By 8 am when we left our home-stay to find breakfast, the fog had lifted a bit, but not much. After a meager meal in comparison to our normal fare, I donned my wind jacket, and we set out for Kraków. Even after another series of those steep short hills that has you clicking constantly through your gear set, I was glad to have the jacket. I warmed a bit on the uphill but cooled on each downhill.
By lunchtime the sky looked like it was clearing, but I kept my jacket on for another ten kilometers. Finally though, the sun poked through, and we saw a bit of blue sky so that by the time we made the turn-off to find the Pradnik Valley, the day was turning fine. Up to that point the roads and traffic had been generally good with only the steep uphills slowing us down.
The section of the Eagles' Nest Trail we rode begins in Ojców National Park. Even before we turned off onto the trail, we could see why Piotr likes this section of Poland as large limestone karst features jut through the heavy forest along a ridge. The first one we saw had a magnificent old castle rising above it - Eagles' Nest is an apt description. Shortly after seeing Pieskowa Skala Castle, obviously in very good shape, and the Cudgel of Hercules, a stark limestone tower narrow at the bottom and thicker towards the top, we found the turnoff down valley.
To our surprise and pleasure most of this part of the trail is well paved (one section was not, but was well worn and smooth) and auto accessible. However, it appears the only traffic was the minimal national park traffic on this Monday along with even less local traffic. The Pradnik Valley is very narrow with those high limestone ridges along both sides and a burbling stream at the bottom along which we rode. Steward and I agree it reminded us of the early section of the Danube Bike Trail on the Orient Express Trip except the Danube starts out much larger than this little stream as I described in that trip report.
I was surprised to find very lovely houses here and there along the length of the valley since this is a national park. It would be a gorgeous place to live and is not all that far from towns outside the park.
Needless to say, the mostly downhill run for about twenty kilometers on decent to very good road with almost no traffic in a spectacular natural setting was certainly a highlight of the trip. However, all good things come to an end, and eventually we spilled onto a back road for the last ten kilometers into Kraków's increasing traffic. Nineteen separate instructions for the last six kilometers kept us busy checking our ride sheet and searching for street signs while trying to avoid potholes, managing rough cobblestone and being careful to cut across the plethora of light rail tracks at safe angles, but we found the Ibis Kraków Centrum Hotel without a miscue.
Tomorrow we plan to join a bus tour to Auschwitz maybe forty miles to the southwest of Kraków, and on Wednesday I'll explore the city.
25 Aug 09, Tuesday 8 pm, Kraków
Today Stewart and I took a tour of Auschwitz. The tour guide was a young Pole in his thirties who seemed intent on making everyone understand what happened there. His main point was that Nazi doctrine and philosophy were madness executed in a most horrible, inhuman and efficient way.
The Auschwitz complex was large, encompassing the three major sites of Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II - Birkenau and Auschwitz III with twenty to thirty smaller camps close to factories and fields where inmates were used as slave labor. This saved transportation time each day. We toured the first two major sites spending most of our time at Auschwitz I where the majority of displays are located.
The guide pointed out that, prior to 1942, Auschwitz was one of many concentration camps where "radical Poles" and other political prisoners were kept as in a prison. However, after the Wannsee Conference where Hitler and his staff decided on the wholesale extermination of European Jews, the Birkenau complex was built to deal with the "problem." This is where the systematic murder and cremation took place. Packed trains arrived daily from all parts of Europe, the Jews were unloaded, separated from their luggage (many had been told they were being permanently relocated and to bring their valuables which were then essentially stolen by the Nazis), and sorted into "fit for work" or "not" groups by a camp "doctor" (the latter group included children, women, old men, the sick, the weak, the disabled, etc.). The "not" group was immediately marched to the far end of camp, told to remove all clothing and crammed into the gas chambers, sometimes under the pretense of showering. At this point Zykon B pellets were dropped through holes in the roof. These pellets released their gas which killed everyone in a remarkably short time. The process to this point took a matter of minutes. However, the unloading of the gas chamber took hours, and the slow process of incineration took even longer. It is estimated that about 70% of the Jews were dead within one hour of reaching Birkenau. For me there was something about the constant striving for better efficiency in the murder of fellow human beings that drove home to me the monstrous nature that surfaced in the camp staff. For instance, to cut down on the time it took to unload the gas chambers, a suggestion was implemented to cram so many people into the room that, when the gas was activated, no one could fall down. In this way, the guards would not have to deal with a jumble of bodies and could more quickly remove them in readiness for the next "batch."
This is also the camp that Joseph Mengel, known as the Angel of Death, performed his diabolical experiments on, for example, twins and sterilization. Of course, Jews weren't the only victims, though they were by far the largest portion, but Roma or gypsies, political dissidents, prisoners of war, social undesirables including homosexuals, etc. were all incarcerated and killed.
Many inmates were put to work for as long as they could function. The inscription "Arbeit Macht Frei" or "work makes you free" at the entrance to the gates was a bitter irony unless you consider death the ultimate freedom. The daily ration of food was controlled carefully to set the inmates on a path toward eventual starvation and death. There were always more workers coming on the next train.
A temporary exception to this trend was made for skilled workers in the factories that sprang up near the camps to take advantage of free labor. Workers with needed skills would get their lunch at the factory each day, and since the factory managers wanted to hang onto skilled and trained workmen, the meals were decent and therefore these prisoners were able to maintain and even improve their health. After awhile, however, camp management noticed that it was the skilled workers who became the complainers and trouble makers who needed closer watching. In essence what was happening was that the skilled workers, no longer concentrating only on where their next meal was coming from, began noticing their surroundings and thinking and planning. To counter this trend, camp managers would allow the skilled inmates to work several months in the factories, but when they started showing rebellious tendencies, they were pulled from their factory jobs and placed back on a low calorie diet in the hardest physical labor until they were physically and mentally incapable of rebellion. At this point, they would be shifted back to the factory job once more. The Nazis discovered that after a few cycles of this treatment, the workers became useless and therefore expendable.
The best prisoner jobs were inside buildings out of the weather, and the best of the best was a job in "Canada." This was the name inmates gave to the place where all the inmates' luggage, discarded clothes and belongings were processed. Valuables went to the SS officers and the rest was sorted into items that could be sold or used within the camp and those that would be shipped back to Germany for reuse. It was called "Canada" because this is where the inmates dreamed all things were available, essentially a paradise. Among the worst jobs was disposing of the dead bodies. Not only was the work physically, mentally and emotionally taxing, but the Nazis could never allow someone who had seen so much to live, so these workers were generally killed after just a few weeks.
The two complexes we saw produced gut kicks in different ways. At Auschwitz I, you walk through rooms with glass displays that personalize the inhumanity: seven tons of human hair, two to three feet deep in a case forty feet long that the Nazis sent to Germany for wigs, cloth blankets and the like; thousands of tooth, shoe and shaving brushes in another large case; hundreds of pairs of glasses, artificial limbs, hundreds of suitcases, thousands of shoes, and a case with again that many children's shoes. All of these items from the hundreds of thousands of inmates processed through this complex were sent to Germany for reuse. The items on display merely represent what was found on liberation day by the Russians. It is indeed a sobering sight.
At Birkenau we didn't view such intimate items. Here it is the immensity of the camp itself that stuns you. You can barely see the ends of the camp with barrack after barrack lined up for hundreds of yards. Here also you can see the remains of the gas chamber buildings and the crematoriums which the Nazis tried to destroy as they retreated from the Red Army. At the far end of the camp are some monuments to those who died in such an abominable way, but they are dwarfed by their surroundings.
After returning to Kraków, I took care of some rest day chores: I sent an "I'm still alive" e-mail, bought new camera batteries as I had discovered a dead camera when I stepped off the Auschwitz bus this morning, and I found a great bookstore with lots of English language editions and bought a Polish novel as I am almost through with Michener's Poland which I've been nursing along to make it last. Tomorrow I hope for a happier touring experience as I explore Kraków.
26 Aug 09, Wednesday, Kraków
I had a beautiful day to explore Kraków. For 500 years, before the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1590, it was the seat of the Polish government and many people would say it remains the soul of the country. When Poland was divided up by Russia, Prussia, and Austria for the third time in 1795, Kraków went to the latter. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had a light hand, however, and Kraków continued to prosper culturally as well as materially. During WW II the Nazis looted the city and virtually exterminated the 65,000 Jewish population, but the city was not bombed nor was it the site of major battles. Therefore, it is the only major city in Poland to retain its original architecture and appearance. The Soviets attempted to undermine the city's heart by constructing a socially engineered suburb and huge steel plant outside the city called Nowa Huta, but this did little to change the soul of this vibrant city.
My first foray of the day was to Wawel Hill to explore Wawel Castle, the royal seat until the late 16th century. The castle was originally built on this location in the 11th century, but it burned down in 1499. The current structure of Renaissance design dates to around 1529. The castle was sacked by both Swedish and Prussian Armies and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had designs to turn it into a citadel, but the structure survived all of these assaults.
I walked the short distance to the castle a good hour before the ticket office opened for the exhibits, and so I had time to enjoy a gorgeous morning in a magnificent courtyard with just the busy groundskeepers and other castle employees getting ready for the rush to share it with. Behind me in line for the tickets was a Polish-Canadian from Toronto who had lived in Warsaw until his mid-twenties and who had last visited Wawel when he was eight years old. He was showing his college-age son the old country. We got the same multi-ticket with the same times so we sort of toured the place together. He shared some interesting tidbits of his remembered Polish history.
The first stop was the Crown Treasury and Armory where rooms of gold, silver, precious jewels and other valuable items were soon followed by rooms of swords, pikes, armor, cannons of all sizes (some so small I wonder at their utility) and other implements of a martial nature. Two sets of items stood out for me: a series of Teutonic banners captured in the Polish-Lithuanian victory over the Teutonic Knights that freed northern Poland from the Prussians; and a collection of the most unusual rifles I have seen. Not only were they odd-shaped, but the decorative carving, inlay, and painting made them works of art. One rifle was shaped more or less like a club with a small hatchet head affixed beneath the barrel at the front. I suspect, when you fired at close range, you then grasped the hilt and used the rifle like an axe.
I got a little shock when viewing a display of ornate clothing. I was looking at the bottom of the display and, when I glanced up, the large "Mad Hatter" style hat that had previously been empty was now filled by someone. After a double take, it became the reflection in the glass case of the shortish woman beside me. I pointed it out to her and her husband and we all had a laugh. She was just the right height for the effect to work.
The State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments tours were next. They are the premier areas in the castle complex, but aside from some very nice and huge tapestries and one item in the throne room, I was not too impressed. We had a guide for the Private Apartments tour who told us they have many more tapestries than they can display and so they rotate them every few years. She said the substance used in olden times to protect the tapestries from insect pests permanently darkened the colors and the current curators are working to prevent further degradation. In one large room, walls were covered by five floor to ceiling, forty-foot long tapestries depicting the story of Noah's ark and the Great Flood. Even if you don't care for this style of art, you have to appreciate the work that goes into it. The Canadian guy said he learned in school that all the tapestries in the castle had found their way to Canada for safe keeping during WW II. The guide confirmed this and said the Poles waited for Stalin to die before asking Canada for them to be returned.
The other item of interest I mentioned above was in the throne room. On the ceiling, which was divided into three foot squares, were thirty faces jutting down from the ceiling, one per square though not all squares were filled. It's pretty bizarre. My Canadian friend said he remembered something about noblemen and women paying to have their images placed there. However, my guide book says the images, carved in 1535, are supposed to depict the life cycle of man and that at one time 194 heads graced the ceiling. I didn't hear about the competing theories until after we left the room so I hadn't scrutinized the figures' features (you'd get a stiff neck) to decide which of the two theories is correct … though I thought I saw some women's faces which would favor the Canadian's version.
The last tour was called Oriental Art which displayed some nice porcelain from Japan along with spoils from Jan III Sobieski's brilliant victory over the Ottoman Army which was laying siege to Vienna. Captured banners, prayer rugs, and the colorful tents of the vanquished were among the items displayed.
I also walked through Wawel Cathedral duly noting the many sarcophagi of Polish Kings - most were crowned and buried here, a tradition that continued even after the capital moved north.
One further story of Wawel Castle before I leave it for other city sights; it has to do with Kraków's "creation" story. One of the tour books I picked up when I arrived states that Kraków is derived from a possibly mythical King Krak (or Krakus) who ruled the tribes along the Vistula and founded the city around 700 AD. One of his (or one of his two son's) legendary feats was to defeat the dragon Smog who lived in a cave within Wawel Hill. The Dragon's Cave is still a feature visitors can experience for a token fee; it's essentially a short tunnel that can be used as an alternative path to descend the hill.
After a short rest at my room I ventured out again. I caught the mechanical parade that happens twice a day at the Collegium Maius which is Poland's oldest surviving university. This one took place in a pretty little courtyard you would never suspect was there given the nondescript exterior of the building.
From there I walked to the other end of Old Town to view the last remaining city gate (the Florian Gate) and its associated Barbican, a bastion built opposite the gate over an intervening moat (no longer extant) to provide an extra modicum of defense. Of course these remnants of time past seem anachronistic as the city has grown far beyond its original walls so that these old defenses are now almost in the center of town.
Just around the corner from the Florian Gate is the Princes Czartoryski Museum, one of the richest in town, though not as rich as prior to WW II. During the war the Nazis transported its contents to Germany and not everything was recovered. The big draws here are Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine and Rembrandt's Landscape with the Good Samaritan. The former is one of only three da Vinci oil paintings, and it is indeed a masterpiece. I recognized it from pictures I have seen. I had not noticed then how large and unfeminine the lady's hand is. Da Vinci painted it in full light and, quite frankly, it doesn't look like what you might imagine this exquisite lady's hand might look like. I have noticed da Vinci's fixation on hands in other works. His wonderful David also has hands that look too big for him. (Stewart mentioned later that he had read that da Vinci purposely made the hand that dangles down in the David larger so as to balance the whole work). Regardless of hands, Lady with an Ermine is a stunning picture.
Lady with an Ermine, detail, by Leonardo da Vinci c. 1490
I was disappointed in the Rembrandt. I'm sure it's composition was avant-garde and purposeful, but you can barely see the action taking place as the good Samaritan helps the wounded trader onto his steed. Even when I looked closely at a print of the same work on a nearby wall, I couldn't really judge what was happening. I certainly have no expertise in this field, but I can say I like Rembrandt's portraits much better than this work.
Besides a number of good Polish and other paintings, the museum also has an exhibit on Egyptian hieroglyphics and mummies that was interesting. For instance, they displayed a mummified kestrel, a harrier, a mongoose, and a cat along with a sarcophagus that once held a mummified falcon. The cat didn't surprise me. After all who wouldn't want to mummify a cat, but of the others I have never seen the like.
On the way back to my hotel, I cruised through the market square again to visit the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady. It's one of the few churches I've had to pay to enter. The church's front entrance is set aside for people to enter to pray and a side entrance was open to tourists. Inside I was surprised to find that the "genuine" visitors (i.e., those who had come to pray) are blocked off in the back of the church while the heathens (we tourists) had the run of the front of the church - just the opposite of what I have previously experienced.
After reading the fee board, I entered the side door and approached the young girl who I assumed would sell me my ticket. No, the ticket office is across the street, she told me. I bought my ticket and returned to give it to the girl and told her they must be too ashamed to have the money changers in the temple. To which she replied with a sly smile, "Maybe."
In any case, if I must pay to see the innards of a church, this would be it. It is breathtaking. The nave seems to soar skyward to a narrow peak, the walls painted in intricate design all the way up to wonderful effect. The 14th century stained glass windows are also reputedly exquisite, but I was more impressed with those vaulted walls. My guide book says the altarpiece is a pentaptych, but two of the panels were either missing or not open today (they are closed in a ceremony at 6 pm every day). However, it was still an amazing piece showing Mary's assumption into heaven surrounded by the apostles (or half of them at this viewing). Reportedly Pablo Picasso cited this altarpiece as the eighth wonder of the world. I wouldn't go quite as far as Pablo, but it is stunning.
The exterior of the church is also quite impressive, occupying a large area just off the main square. It has two towers; one is the basilica's bell tower while the taller of the two belonged to the city in previous times to be used as a watch tower. I have not heard of such an arrangement before, but it makes sense.
I left the basilica just in time for the hourly performance of the hejnal from the watch tower. A bugler plays a simple melody that in medieval times was used as a warning call. After maybe half a minute, the call is broken off in mid-note. Supposedly, long ago the watchman on duty in the tower spotted a Tatar Army coming to invade the town and sounded the alarm. A Tater arrow pierced his throat mid-note, but the townspeople were warned and the army was repulsed. Ever since, in the bugler's honor, the piece has been played such. Also, the hejnal is played on Polish radio at noon every day.
Besides many other nice buildings, fountains, statues and the like, the two other dominating features of Kraków's Market Square, the largest medieval town square in Europe, are the Cloth Hall, which is a huge Renaissance-style building originally built for the rag trade but now full of shops of all sorts, and the lone tower that remains from the 15th century town hall that was torn down in the 1820s. The Market Square is certainly the hub of activity, always the busiest place in town.
Before I sign off, I want to note that since coming to Kraków I have been passed multiple times while walking determinedly to some destination. This does not often happen since I walk pretty fast and, what's more, the several people who have passed me have been young ladies in their twenties or thirties. I'm not sure where they are off to, but they certainly are covering the ground in a hurry.
That's it for Kraków. Tomorrow we begin our five-day ride to Warsaw and the end of our trip.
27 Aug 09, Thursday 8 pm, Kryzanowice Dolne, 99 km
We had a nice conversation with the Ibis Hotel manager as we were leaving this morning. She asked us a bit about our trip and was suitably impressed, and she told us that some years ago she traveled two months in the U.S. covering a remarkable number of miles (she said 16,000, but I suspect something got lost in translation though it would certainly be possible). Bryce Canyon in southwest Utah was her standout memory.
We made today's ride a lot longer than it needed to be … by sixteen kilometers to be exact. Our first misstep was on what looked to be a very straightforward (if long) exit from the city. We had a series of turns which we managed okay, but then had a long relatively straight stretch (albeit with roundabouts, bridges, intersections, etc.) as the street changed names numerous times. We ended up at a T-junction that wasn't supposed to be there and realized we were off-route. I hadn't been interested in touring Nowa Huta, that socialist dream suburb I mentioned earlier, but we got to see much of it as we had to cut through it to our planned route.
Within two kilometers we were off-track again. Our route directions seemed to lead us to a dirt road so we first tried a rough paved road that was close to the right distance for a turn, but the road petered out in stages until we were following a tractor trail between fields to a farmer's barnyard. Backtracking, we tried the dirt road which, we think, was the right route. We stopped to consult the maps and compass at multiple other points on our route. All in all, it was a humbling day from a navigation standpoint. This was offset by the rural nature of the route with almost no traffic. There were some challenging, if short, hills that had me switching again and again from the highest to the lowest gear and vice versa. We also sought another bus stop hut to avoid a brief, light shower, sharing the hut with a couple of local guys who where making their way afoot.
We were surprised by a new crop we have not seen before. I thought it looked like tobacco, and we think this was confirmed when we saw the large leaves hanging over fences to dry … but tobacco this far north? Also, the root vegetable road kill list continues to lengthen; this time it was a peck of crushed and broken carrots along the roadside.
We didn't arrive at our remote hotel until after 5 pm! The manager and her assistant who runs the hotel and restaurant spoke no English or German, but we managed to check in and store our bikes no problem. At supper, the manager brought a Poland-English dictionary, and we negotiated what I suspect was the only meal available: borscht with sausage, chicken, fries, a slaw salad, and for me, black current juice. A couple other guys came in for supper but, except for a small celebration party (wedding?) dancing to loud music in the restaurant's hall, this place is dead. The party was in progress when we arrived so we're hoping they shut down early, though I'm not counting on it.
For tomorrow night Piotr has given us directions to a B&B; we'll see how that goes.
28 Aug 09, Friday, Bodzentyn, 81.2 km
According to Stewart, the party went late last night, but again my earplugs did the trick. When I arose this morning, I noticed a heavy mist over the small lake behind the hotel and the sky looked overcast. By the time we left, the mist had lightened and the gray sky above had turned blue. While we were checking out, a big group was checking in. Stewart said he saw what looked like music holders being set up where the wedding reception had been last night, and we passed another meeting room that had been arranged for some kind of conference. This out-of-the-way hotel seems to do a good business with groups.
We had great riding day today. The roads were all minor with little traffic. We were on rolling hills all day, some pretty steep, so we got some great vistas of the countryside. Toward the end of the day, we passed through the neck of another national park, all forested. I saw my first live wild mammal, a squirrel, alongside the road today. I saw some mostly tame squirrels in Warsaw's Lazienki Park, but this is the first since then. I also saw the equivalent of a "beware of deer" road sign. It seems strange to have traveled through so much rural country without seeing any wild mammals … well, now this one. We also again rode through a patch of small flies, though not the several kilometers of them we experienced yesterday. It sometimes feels like rain as they pelt you; you learn to keep your mouth closed.
We arrived in our destination town and began searching for our B&B. The directions were a bit confusing, but we eventually found it after consultation with a friendly native. As we walked to the door, a woman came out to say nie pokóje - no rooms. I think she saw us reprobates coming and decided "not in my house." Her face was screwed up like a prune; of course, this might have been normal for her. We asked the man of the house (who had encouraged us to come into the yard) where we might find a room and he pointed across the street. We noticed they also had a sign offering rooms, but found no one home.
Now we were in a bit of a bind. The town was small and the towns on our route tomorrow were even smaller. We went to the town center and asked some other self-contained riders who just happened to be passing through and spoke English where they were staying. Unfortunately they were headed in the direction from which we had just come and had accommodations some kilometers down the road. However, they did translate our quest to the owner of a café where they were having a snack who suggested a monastery town about thirty kilometers away, again in the wrong direction.
We decided to canvas the town to see if other houses had signs for rooms. A quick check down several other streets found none, so we decided to see if the folks in the second place we had checked had arrived home yet. On the way we spotted an Agrotourism sign on a house and stopped to check it out as folks who hang this sign are part of an association to rent rooms to tourists as a way to give people a rural experience in Poland.
We hit the jackpot! The young couple both speak English. He had worked in a casino in Shreveport, LA for several months. They have two young daughters, the eldest of which, at age five, is taking English lessons in school and are very welcoming. While writing in my journal before supper in the kitchen, our hostess asked if we would like to try some summer soup she had made for their supper. Of course, we were keen to try it and found it lovely with a rich broth, potatoes, spinach and a type of cucumber.
For our supper, we walked into town and found only two pizzerias open - the restaurant front we saw earlier is just that as the inside has been taken over by the adjacent sklep. We both ordered Hawaiian pizza (Stewart's "without cheese" order caused confusion on the part of the waitress: "but the pizza must have at least some cheese!" or the Polish equivalent). This, the first pizza I have eaten in many months, was very good.
Tomorrow is a longish day with a ferry ride midway. We're hoping for continued good weather.
29 Aug 09, Saturday 9 pm, Kazimierz Dolny, 17.2 km
I must say I did not expect to be spending my 58th birthday anniversary in a Polish Youth Hostel… but I'll get to that shortly.
Yesterday evening our host's father asked us to join them for a beer some time after 8 pm. "Them" turned out to be him (he speaks no English), his two sons and the younger son's friend. Our host and his father are business partners in a road work company. They own maybe twenty large dump trucks, bulldozers, etc…. quite a capital investment. They seem to be doing very well. They also make snow for the nearby ski resort in the winter. The younger brother is getting his CE degree and his friend is studying law. All three of the young guys speak decent English, and all had traveled abroad.
We met considerably after 8 pm as they had to wait for one of their dump trucks to come in and dump its load. When we sat around the table, they all drank beer; I drank apple juice. They were very interested in why I drank no alcohol, and one of the young guys opined that I was very thin for an American, a non sequitur I wasn't sure how to answer. With the drinks, they brought out some good bread, "real" Polish sausage with catsup and a nice local mustard that remind me of Grey Poupon, and vine ripened tomatoes with onion. One of the guys said he tried so called Polish sausage in the U.S. implying it was a joke compared to the real thing. I tried the sausage and it was very good, but I've eaten similar tasting sausages in the States. I realize I probably have an underdeveloped sausage palette, but I'm just saying…
Our conversations ranged over a variety of subjects including types of beer, their experiences in England and the U.S., beer, their road building company, beer, and beer. I wish I had asked them what they thought about the U.S.-Poland agreement to place an anti-missile system there, but I just didn't think of it at the time. We did talk a bit about politics though. The father seemed to be enjoying himself despite not being able to understand most of the conversation and left a good half hour before we broke up.
They all had to get up at 5 am for work so we broke up early (by Polish party standards), but before we adjourned the lads broke out the hard stuff in the form of a homemade plum vodka and poured five small shot glasses, giving Stewart one that was half again as large as the others, and slugged them down - 75% alcohol they said.
In the morning our hostess put out quite a spread for breakfast including bread baked in the shape of a rooster, a prize-winning hallmark of the area. It was good bread, but then almost all of the bread we have had in Poland has been good. Having done what damage we could to the spread, we packed up and were ready to depart when it began raining. The sky was uniformly overcast, but the rain was light and we just waited under cover until it stopped.
During the morning we made the best time of our trip. I think we had a bit of a tail wind, and we also seemed to tend downhill for much of the way. Part of the way we followed a tributary of the Vistula which was scenic. It sprinkled on us two or three times and the road was wet in places, but overall it was no problem. The route was straight forward, the traffic remarkably light for the semi-major road we biked, it was cool with no sun, and the scenery was pleasant. Life was good.
Then we reached our ferry crossing on the Vistula. We timed it perfectly and caught the ferry just as it pulled in. It was a dinky thing with a capacity for maybe four full-sized cars. Just after we boarded, it began to rain harder than before. We took cover under an awning watching our bikes get drenched.
Here our luck changed. Up until now it had been a very nice ride. However, as we reached the east side of the Vistula, the rain increased. We walked our bikes off the ferry and sought shelter under some thin-leafed trees, but they provided no protection. No other shelter was in sight. I pulled out my trusty Gortex jacket which provided a modicum of comfort. Stewart chose to use his plastic raincoat to cover his bags since they had leaked last time getting his gear wet and decided instead to tough it out in his riding clothes. Luckily the temperature was mild.
After a few minutes, when he figured he couldn't get any wetter, Stewart suggested we just press on and press on we did. But now I noticed that my plastic handlebar map holder was leaking and our day's route was getting wet and the ink was running - not good. I stopped at the first bus shelter and put the various maps into my jacket pocket where at least they would get no wetter. From then on, when we needed to verify our position and onward directional choices, I would find shelter, dry my fingers as best I could, and carefully extract the maps for a peek. Later on Stewart's instructions also began getting wet and also they didn't seem to be matching up with what we were seeing on my maps, so for much of the last forty kilometers, we dead reckoned using our best judgment with furtive looks at my sodden maps.
The rain continued unabated for a good twenty kilometers and, as we turned north, found a headwind driving it into our faces. It was not pleasant riding. For the last twenty kilometers, it let up and sometimes stopped, but most of the time it was at least a light sprinkle. We discovered at one point that we were no longer on the prescribed route and made a course correction. At another point we had a choice between the prescribed route and the red bike route with a sign stating our destination town to be twenty-two kilometers distant. We made the decision to try the bike route since the signs had been prominent, but within a couple kilometers, the bike path turned down a very iffy country road that looked like it might go unpaved at some point - not a route for a rainy day.
Luckily for us (at this point anyway), our destination town was a larger town used as a weekend retreat for the people of Warsaw, so it was fairly well signed, and we eventually found our way. Stewart has a very good directional sense (and a compass) which sure helped on this day.
Arriving in town we were surprised to see all the visitors since the roads had been empty. We threaded our way to the opposite side of town down a torturous kilometer-plus cobblestone street to our hotel ominously sporting two large tour buses out front. Full - nie pokóje. No problem, we had seen many signs offering rooms for the night. On the way back up the cobble path I popped into at least half a dozen places offering rooms (Stewart's bike with the third wheel is hard to park and my bike has a kickstand so I did the checking) - all full. I checked my guide book for the tourist office, a sure place to find help, and we headed to the town square. The lady was just closing (it was now 5:30 pm), but, albeit reluctantly (I could see she was already envisioning plopping down in an easy chair in front of a nice fire to warm her feet), she called a couple places with no luck. Torn between her duty and her cozy home, she finally offered a couple of "maybes" and we were on our own again.
I quickly checked the hopefuls with no luck and then several more. By this time our chances of finding any rooms were getting slim. Although only 6 pm, it was already getting dark because of the still heavy cloud cover. I did not want to mount my bike to ride out of the city into this gloaming. I remembered my guide book mentioned a youth hostel, and we cycled to the general area but couldn't locate it even with an address. Finally, we had only a deserted back corner of a lot to check and, turning the corner of what might have been an old fire station, there it was, tucked cozily in a nook which was literally the last place one would look. I hurried inside and, with what must have been a look of desperation on my face and a creak in my voice, asked about a room. Miraculously, our angel of salvation said yes, they did have beds.
So, after a wonderful warm shower to wash away the road grime, hanging up our sodden gear, and laying out our paper items to hopefully dry, we headed out for a sufficient, if not great, late supper. Surely this will prove to be the least enjoyable day of the trip.
Today our route is on semi-major roads and should be easy to follow. My remaining maps and directions weathered the damp and are functional. And the sun is brightly shining - a good omen. Tomorrow is a short ride into Warsaw. Stewart called Piotr last night and everything is set for us to drop off the third wheel and my bike at a bike shop to be boxed and sent to Piotr. All is again right with the world after our trial yesterday.
I should mention that we did have a new sighting yesterday. Shortly after leaving the ferry as we wended our way on the back roads looking for the prescribed route, we passed several fields of hops strung up in that distinctive pyramidal shape. We had been told by the guys the night before, that this was a beer-making area.
30 Aug 09, Sunday 9 pm, Warka, 95 km
Breakfast at the hostel was not served until 9 am and so, after my morning exercise regime, I took a stroll around Kazamierz Dolny. This little town, once a thriving economy on the banks of the Vistula, met with multiple hard times and has been built or rebuilt to focus on the quaint and historical. It is a pretty place with a castle on the hill overlooking the river and a 13th century watchtower on a hill above that. The watchtower had, among other functions, the duty as lighthouse for the commerce moving along the river. The town square is pleasant with a few memorable buildings. Even nicer than the town was the morning itself: clear, brisk, sunny, not a cloud in the sky and birds preaching the good news. Ah, life is good!
Our hope was that folks heading back to the city on this beautiful Sunday would leave later in the afternoon and take more direct routes than we were taking so we wouldn't have to contend with much traffic. This didn't happen, and we did have a fair amount of fast traffic, but really not too bad. Our route paralleled the Vistula for ten kilometers before crossing it on a major four-lane bridge. No bikes were allowed on the highway across the bridge so we walked our bikes across on a pedestrian way. Carrying our bikes and all our gear up and down the long flights of steep access stairs for the bridge was our toughest task for the day. We were forced to disembark the bridge a good kilometer from the intersection on our route guide so we dead reckoned our way through a small farming community. We followed a high berm, probably meant to hold back the Vistula's flood waters, for most of the way and eventually found our northern route.
From there it was a straightforward route, and we made decent time despite a persistent headwind that knocked a good five kilometers per hour from yesterday's pre-rain rate. We pulled into Warka around 3 pm and easily found our hotel which had some type of "do" going on, probably another wedding. My initial foray to reception was met with a "nie pokoje" tonight response. Stewart then asked for suggestions in town for lodging and an English-speaker was sent for. She reversed the initial dictum and told him that rooms would be available but needed to be cleaned. So our last night on the road is being spent in the relative lap of luxury.
Tomorrow we have a fairly short jaunt to Warsaw where, I might add, we have room reservations. We should miss rush hour traffic into the city. We've noted that, as we have gotten closer to Warsaw, the traffic has included a few more boors who don't seem to respect bikes on the road (though we still have seen plenty of local bike traffic on the roads). Once in the city, Piotr has us on a bike path which should be good.
31 Aug 09, Monday, Warsaw, 59.8 km
I slept hard last night and awoke to a sunny day. After a less bountiful breakfast than has been usual, we packed our bikes and were ready to go. I'm glad we paid last night because the place was dead with just four other customers at breakfast. Since I didn't have any pictures of me and only one or two of Stewart, I pulled out my camera, but found the battery dead! I had changed them out exactly a week ago and had taken less than thirty pictures since then. Luckily I had bought a four-pack and we got the pictures, but I wonder what happened with the batteries.
We were off on our final ride. Following Piotr's route to the highway I wondered if he was having a last joke on us. Instead of backtracking the kilometer or two into town to catch our route, he (or Google-map) directed us at right angles and took us down a side street that turned first to cobble and then to dirt. I was wondering if it would dead end when I heard the road traffic and we found ourselves on the highway.
The first thirty-plus kilometers headed straight to Warsaw on a busy thoroughfare. As we neared Warsaw, drivers seemed to be more in a hurry and less patient, zooming by closer than necessary. For part of the way we actually had a decent shoulder which certainly helped. Along the way I saw a dead stoat or weasel intact at the side of the road - a first on the trip; no new root vegetable road kill though.
The last phase of the trip was on city streets, but just prior, about thirty-five kilometers from the hotel, I had my first and only spill. We were approaching a major roundabout where two highways crossed. Our lane was backed up maybe twenty cars and trucks. I pulled onto the side of the road which was wet from a previous rain and my tires got coated with a silty grit (my bike is fitted with "slicks," i.e., the non-knobby mountain bike tires that work better on pavement). As a driver motioned me into the roundabout, I accelerated into the curve and my tires just went out from under me. I went down hard but was immediately up to get my bike and myself out of the traffic into the center of the roundabout. I wrenched my right knee when I fell and tweaked my right thumb. Both are a bit swollen now, but I suffered no road rash and seem to have only a small bruise on my thigh. Luckily the car behind me made a wide turn to head into a different exit. The bike was not damaged although the handlebars needed to be straightened. Incidents like this reinforce how dangerous cycling can be - you have to be constantly alert.
Most of the rest of the way we followed the brick bike paths that are part of the sidewalks. It's a bit slower, but overall is probably safer. As we approached the touristy part of town, I began recognizing landmarks: Lazienki Park, the ambassador houses and embassies, and finally Old Town with its defensive wall. It was good to see the Hotel Ibis which promised a comfy stay.
After a shower, we walked my bike and Stewart's third wheel to the bike shop. Piotr had sent the shop an e-mail which they had yet to read, so Stewart called Piotr who worked things out. Stewart even found a bike box to replace the one the hotel had tossed. Back in the room I was shocked to find I could fit my new panniers into my backpack along with a couple of extra books beyond what I had brought in it - that thing is like a black hole and I am well pleased.
Tonight for supper, Stewart and I went to the same pierogi restaurant we patronized the night before we biked out of Warsaw - might as well end with a national dish. Tomorrow, I'll eat breakfast in the hotel and catch a cab to the airport for the long trip home. By my calculation we biked 2,251.5 kilometers or 1,399.1 miles - a challenging trip for anyone.
1 Sep 09, Tuesday, in flight from London to Boston
Watching the English-language news while I exercised this morning, I realized why we had seen a plethora of national flags when we walked to Old Town for supper last night. This morning at dawn the Poles had a major ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of WW II. At dawn on September 1, 1939, the Germans fired on Westerplatte, Poland's only Baltic military post at the time, to begin WW II. Neville Chamberlain gave Hitler an ultimatum which expired without response forty-eight hours later, and Britain declared war on Germany. Within weeks Russia invaded Poland from the east and that ended it for Poland. However, many Polish men escaped to the west and fought bravely with the Allies, the Polish resistance movement was ever ready to harass the Germans and later, after Hitler double-crossed Stalin and invaded Russia, many Poles fought with the Russian Army.
And so, after a last breakfast that included cold cuts, tomatoes, and brie (all staples in a Polish breakfast buffet), I took a taxi to the airport, bought goodies with my remaining zlotys, and boarded my plane. I couldn't help noticing the dark layer of air pollution in all directions as we climbed to altitude. I had read of it, but had not noticed while we were riding in it - a sad last observation on what has been a pleasant bicycle trip around Poland.