Triplogue - Poland
|23 August, Suwalki to
I woke up groggy this morning after sleeping badly in our commie era hotel. Our entry into Suwalki yesterday revealed a town of a million shares of gray. The stunningly beautiful countryside stands in stark contrast to the nearly disgusting towns. Looks like Hitler and Stalin left a horrific architectural legacy on poor Poland. (For those of you who dont know the evil story, both perpetrated incredible horrors on the populations of this area. First the Germans pummeled Poland. The exiled Polish government struck up a deal with the Russians to oust the Germans. The Russians ignored their agreement to cooperate as soon as they saw that the Polish had independent aspirations. The brave Soviet forces watched the Germans make mincemeat of the Polish army from just over the border. After the Polish forces suffered some 200,000 casualties and the Germans systematically burned Warsaw the valiant Russians stepped in to "liberate" the Poles.)
Our breakfast was in another Soviet-style dining room. This time the management had tried to redecorate using camouflage netting to cover a decaying ceiling. The server did her absolute best to minimize contact with us and again Andy was left wanting another cup of his morning addiction. I was happy to hit the road.
Today the countryside seemed even more picturesque, especially since we werent rushing to beat the sunset like the evening before. Yesterday Andy noticed a stork in a field as we rode along, and wed also seen their massive nests atop telephone poles but not made the connection between the two. Today we saw many storks atop barns, houses and utility poles. Often they were with their mates tending to their young. It looked like the farmers had made special accommodations for the big white birds, which left us wondering if they represented good luck for the residents.
Today I was still fearing drivers. Not only did they behave as badly as the Lithuanians, but they also appeared to be spatially impaired. Today a lovely Lada wagon raced past me, then hit his brakes hard and swerved right onto the shoulder in front of me in order to make a spontaneous U-turn, forcing me off the road. The day before I tried to figure out how to menace the drivers into being more considerate. I composed this threat, "Yeah!, come any closer with your new Audi and Ill get my blood all over your shiny car and then flip end-over-end like a pinwheel helplessly through the fields." We have determined that the biggest buttheads drive Audis and we cringe anytime we see one. I am thinking about trying to get a stork to nest on my bike to bring me some good luck.
Olecko, our lunch spot, came pretty quickly despite our roadside dramas. We looked for a lunch spot, came upon a charming little restaurant on the way into town and decided to see what we could find in the center. What we did find was the worst pizza in the East. Our sidewalk meal was not without redeeming value, since it did provide a great people-watching opportunity. Oleckos natural beauty and lakeside setting appear to draw many Polish tourists.
A navigational error on the way out of town turned out to be another gorgeous mistake. It placed us on a tree-canopied road through the most rural area, where the only other traffic was Stosh on his tractor on his way to reap his wheat. Before long we were in Elk and ready to call it a short day. We decided to find a little snack before seeking lodging. At the train station we shared a hot dog that would have its own zip code if found in the States.
Finding a hotel was not as easy as we anticipated. First we tried to find one that looked like it should be on an island of the lake. It turned out to be in yet another ugly residential area on a road paved in massive concrete blocks that didnt quite fit together. The sensation caused by the pavement was like riding on a path cobbled with the world's largest stones. As we fled this nasty burb we were chased by a persistent little barking gnat of a dog. It liked Andys pepper spray so much it came back for a second helping.
Our next stop was an upscale affair on the lake that looked deserted, however the desk clerk told me that they were full but we could check back at 8pm. He told us about the two other hotels in town, one being the one wed seen on pepper poodle lane and the other up the street. We decided to check out the Zodiak Hotel upon his recommendation and discovered a hotel that was built and furnished during the communist administration. We decided to press our luck and returned to the upscale lakeside one. We sat and drank beers on their terrace by the lake until eight and then asked for our room. The clerk told Andy that the cancellation had been called in hours before and asked if we really wanted our room now. (duh!?, no wed like to sit out here dirty and sweaty and be eaten alive by the mosquitoes.)
While we waited we met an American girl and her Polish boyfriend. Karolyn and Martin run the Yahoo-like Internet service of Poland (www.PolishWorld.com). They shared some great secrets on how to get connected in Warsaw and offered to show us around town when we get there later in the week. We munched in the hotel restaurant because it was the only place in town that would take credit cards. Our communications with the waitress were limited to our very bad German and much gesticulation. Even in the face of our limited vocabulary everything came as we asked except Andys beer which was warm. This left Andrew pondering why he has such bad beverage Karma. We retreated to the room, opting to skip the disco that came highly recommended by the barman in favor of an evening at home with NBC Europe and our computer.
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Storks: good luck?
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Fred yucks it up with some locals, "really, thanks, but no more vodka...."
|24 August, Elk to
Lomza, 99 km
We were the center of attention, surrounded by over a dozen young men, several of them bare-chested and all wanting to talk to us and buy us drinks. Unfortunately, this scenes being completely outside of any queer context made it mostly unpleasant, even claustrophobic. We had stopped at a roadside refreshment stand and ersatz bar in Radzilow, a godforsaken shithole if there ever was one. Our fellow patrons were all hopelessly wasted, and most of them looked like theyd spent last night in a nearby gutter, but our arrival on the scene was enough to shake them from their alcoholic stupor. We might as well have been invading aliens for all the stir we caused, and Im sure that those among them who remain conscious (if there are any, that is) are still talking about it now. Most of them spoke loudly to us in Polish or used course pantomime (e.g. sticking the business end of a bottle of vodka in our faces and insisting we drink). Only one teenager among them spoke a few words of English, "motherfucker" being a favorite. There was also an older guy spoke to us in bad Spanish, who told us he had lived in Madrid for five years and that we could call him Juan. We kept trying to explain to our overly friendly hosts that we couldnt drink if we were expected to ride another 50 kilometers.
This event marked the middle of an otherwise unremarkable day. It was a lot like yesterday, with the same strong wind blowing in our faces, the same warm temperature and summery feeling to the air, the same pastoral splendor all around us. Has Poland already lost its gloss of exoticism for us?
I suppose the day wasnt entirely without distractions. Heading out of town this morning we passed two churches belching out mass-goers. There were so many that I wondered how they could all fit inside, and said a silent prayer hoping that the priests sermon had extolled the virtues of safe driving.
Drivers werent a big issue today, though. The roads we took were very calm for the most part, but for this we had to pay a price, since the surfaces of Polands secondary road system are cobbled, bumpy, buckled, potholed, or worse. Its a day Ill remember more with my sore butt than with my brain.
While we ate lunch in Grajewo (we ordered schnitzel again, it being the only thing we recognized on the menu) we watched a blind man walk by on the street outside encounter our bikes a major obstacle. An hours ride beyond was where the really bad roads began, and by the time we stopped for our encounter with the jeunesse dorée of Radzilow, we were pretty well rattled, seriously wondering if we (and our bikes) would arrive intact in Lomza, still 42 kilometers away. Miraculously, the last hour of riding was relatively smooth sailing. I still had to stand up in my pedals half the time to give my poor taint a rest ("taint" is Bratese for perineum, i.e. the part of the body that is most intimately connected to ones bicycle seat). For what felt like the first time today, I caught myself admiring my surroundings rather than bemoaning the miserable state of the road. There were huge pyramids of hay everywhere, and farmers plying the roads with tractors. We played leap-frog with one such vehicle for a long time over the rolling terrain. Inside it were a farmer and his wife, causing Fred to theorize they were on their way into town for an elegant Sunday dinner.
Lomza the sleepy provincial capital where were staying tonightis situated above the deeply-cut valley of the Narew River. It wasnt hard finding a place to stay, with the familiar Soviet-style hotel visible for miles around. Checking in, a squat little old dude hovered around like a fly, offering to help us with our bikes. First he showed us a closet near the lobby, which looked fine, but when it came time to park the bikes he led us back outside and proceeded to load them into a little shack in the middle of the hotels parking lot. Unable to communicate and exhausted from the days bumpy ride, we decided to put our fate in hands of this earnest little parking gnome. "He must be working us for a tip", Fred and I both thought aloud, in the eerie simultaneous way that comes from being around each other twenty-four hours a day.
No such person came forward to assist us with the dining process. Our hotel is full of young athletes in town for some event or another, and the staff refused to let us eat in the dining room. Fred had to make a small scene which I thankfully didnt have to witnessin order to get us served in the bar. The food was decent and there was an approximate English translation of the menu, upon which three of the desserts were listed simply as "ice cream," while a fourth was mysteriously differentiated as "ice cream dessert." We ordered the latter since it was more expensive, and then headed out for a walk around town and a bottle of drinkable water.
Lomza is pretty quiet on a Sunday night, apart from the heavy traffic on the highway to Warsaw. From the unlit streets, it looked attractive enough, with lots of green squares and older buildings. The only market we found open was doing a brisk business, and we were disappointed to find they only carry fizzy water (flat bottled water is a rare commodity in these parts, and we hoard it when we find it).
Feeling we had pretty much exhausted Lomzas night-time offerings, we slumped our way back to our room, where Fred snores behind me as I type in the dark.
|25 August, Lomza to
I had looked forward to this day especially after the yesterdays rough and windy ride. My butt was still screaming over the bumpiness of yesterdays road, though I could hardly hear its complaints over those of my quads. Wed anticipated rolling out of bed, packing up our bikes and taking the train into Warsaw. Neither of us had relished the idea of riding 150 kilometers on a busy highway full of Polish urban drivers. Wed come to this decision when we entered our first Polish town, where I was almost run down by a taxi driver who seemed to be in a coma while driving. Graphic signs on the roadside depicting cars hitting both people and one another confirmed for us that even the Poles know that driving skill is at issue here.
Andrew was just a little disappointed. He had hoped that we could ride from Tallinn to Turkey without using any form of transportation other than our bikes. Integrity of the ride was overridden by concern for our safety.
We sauntered down to the restaurant anticipating cold cuts, cabbage, cucumbers, canned juice and bread like every other breakfast for the last dozen days. The experience was surprisingly different. First, our waiter was about the warmest one wed encountered. Not only was he polite, but a menu offered us a choice of a hot breakfast. After munching some half-heartedly scrambled eggs (more like a fried egg that someone broke the yoke on) and ham we put the friendly staff to the test. Andrew asked for another helping of coffee. The waiter grinned and within a few minutes came back with two cups of refreshingly warm caffeinated beverages and a bill for 10 zloties. I was happy to pay for it and savored my second cup and the simple fact that it was available. Am I becoming addicted to the morning mud like Andy?
Andy went to the travel office next door to find out the train schedule and exchange some greenbacks while I packed. I decided to stop by the front desk to ask a question. One can only imagine my disappointment when the desk clerk told me that wed have to ride on to another to catch the train to Warsaw. I raced over to the travel office to find Andy. On my way over the parking lot mafia dude grabbed me and stuffed a twently (whopping) zlot invoice for attending to our bicycles. Alternatively I cursed our logistic predicament and my foolishness for not sniffing out the parking rip-off the night before.
Approaching the Orbis Travel office I saw Andy looking puzzled while waiting outside. I noticed a woman scurrying about inside looking out occasionally at him through the locked door. Andy recounted how he had come up to the front door hearing her frantic steps behind him. Reaching for the door she nearly shoved him out of the way, opened the door, slammed it behind her and told him to wait there. When I informed Andy of our plight, we decided to abort our first visit to the Polish National Tourist Bureau.
While I loaded my bike in front of the hotel the sleazy parking dude hovered over me as though I would run off without paying him the protection money he demanded. Cant say it didnt cross my mind, since the whole thing reeked of impropriety. While I exchanged pleasantries with the parking mafia Andy handled our transportation crisis. He learned that the nearest town with a rail connection (whose name sounded like the fat-free fat substitute Olestra) was 45 kilometers away and asked the hotel worker to find out the schedule. According to Andys watch we had a mere hour and a half to make the 45K distance. Otherwise, there would be a five hour wait for the next train. Hmmm, that would mean that wed have to beat our fastest daily average ever to make the train, which seemed an unlikely event.
Once on the road we found that the wind had shifted 180 degrees. It was now blowing us along as we pumped as hard as we could down the busy and narrow highway. Strangely the traffic seemed less menacing as we raced along at nearly 30k/h. The goal of making the next town became more reasonable as we watched our average speed climb. After about 25K it became apparent that we would most likely make our train. Andrew had been riding in my jet stream and remarked that it he "wasnt even having to push it." I invited him to lead for a few kilometers. I was definitely "pushing it" and sweat was dripping off my nose readily as we cruised down the highway.
Not knowing where to find the station in Olestra was our undoing. We essed about the town asking various people where to find it until we finally came upon the tracks and saw the station. The only issue was that we were five minutes late for the train when we huffed into the station. The sales clerk looked at us as though wed lost our minds. I cant imagine what we looked like. Sweat was dripping off of me, I was nervous and breathing hard. We thought that we had missed the train by moments and asked when the next train was. The friendly (genuinely) woman behind the counter didnt speak English well wrote the time of the train we were trying to make from Lomza. Something didnt make sense, the train should have left at least five minutes before. "No, really, when is the next train?," We asked more emphatically. She shrugged, and pointed to her note and then the clock in the station which showed the time one hour earlier than Andrews watch. Wed been in Poland for three nights not knowing that the time had changed when we crossed the Border from the Baltics. (Andrew thinks this time change is the reason that the Polish authorities held us up at the border for an hour; in this country where nothing comes for free, they werent about to let us get away with a free hour).
An hour later we were on our way to Warsaw. The train itself was a rustic affair with more in common with a tractor than a train, its solid plastic red bench seats evoking a communist era feel. The ambiance inside the train was more like the village square than a form of transportation. All the peasants knew one another and conversed, shared food and helped one another board their baggage as we rattled down the tracks. The train stopped every five minutes in the most unlikely places. Often wed pause in the middle of a field next to a cow or rows of wheat where no one would get on or off. Through most of the ride the four women next to us chatted and ate. I have never seen so many sausages and sandwiches consumed by so few people. Admittedly I was a little jealous; wed only had a meager snack at the train station. One of the country women had bought a soft drink in Olestra and none of them could figure out how to open it and asked me to help. Two-thirds of the way through the voyage the train stopped and everyone hopped over to the next quay to change trains for the final ascent into Polands capital. It was easy for most, but a little more complicated with our 100 pound (40 some-odd kilogram) bicycles. We had to lower them from the train, down to the ground from the platform, then up to the next platform, and finally into the new train. A helpful older Pole helped us load our bikes onto the new train that looked suspiciously like the last. After three hours of travel Id finished my book and we were rolling into the outskirts of Warsaw. It would have taken only a little while longer for us to have ridden our bikes into town.
The suburbs looked just as I remembered. Gray housing blocks and factories were surrounded by more of the same. It was a little shocking to come into a big city from the solitude of the countryside. The station and square were very busy, as were all the streets of Warsaw. On our ride the day before Id joked that wed have a Burger King lunch when we arrived in town. I was craving a hamburger. As we wound our way up a steep hill that leads from the river to the citys center, a vision greeted us: a Burger King with a terrace next to a cyber café. It seemed like a sign from the almighty, so we stopped in for a little dose of America.
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Sun sets over Warsaw
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Disneyland Warsaw?: The entirely reconstructed market square
|26-29 August, Warsaw
It had been five or six years since I had been to Warsaw and the change was remarkable. My last time here the streets and shops were gray and empty. I had considered Warsaw to be one of the saddest places on earth. It looked uglier than Los Angeles. Still, now as then, Warsaw is clearly designed for cars, huge boulevards criss-cross the city, culminating in the center where a huge Stalinist tower dominates the square.
The city has changed phenomenally, it doesnt seem sad at all. Active, busy and thriving are the words I would use to describe it. The bustling new shopping artery that leads from the center to the old city is alive and colorful. Shoppers peruse wide varieties of goods in stylish boutiques and refresh themselves at hip little cafes. Capillary walking streets feed the busier artery that leads to the old town. I remembered this street as shabby and ugly and was happily surprised to see this new vitality. The center square of the old town which I recalled as the diamond in the pile of sand that was Warsaw glitters more brilliantly than before. The once empty square is now filled with terrace restaurants and public benches. At night it fills with people eating, drinking, walking, and talking. The sounds of their activity bounce off the buildings and their colorful facades, lending a lively atmosphere to a beautiful spot. At night young lovers walk the ramparts and treat onlookers to intimacy that might better be reserved for their bedrooms or hotels.
Still, amongst all the prosperity there are signs that there is some distance to go. Wandering among the crowds of cell-phone-toting yuppies are many homeless and indigents. There are just a few more dirty mothers using their equally dirty and pathetic looking children to solicit cash than you would find in most other European capitals. Straying off the "Disney" track in Warsaw youll still come upon buildings that recall the previous regime and its utilitarian architectural leanings. Soviet era gray block buildings and underground arcades host an unusual mix of traditional variety stores and western fast-food establishments. The little local Seven-Eleven style stores still operate under the Eastern shopping conventions. All the goods lie behind the counter and the shop keep helps you find the goods you want. This system promotes interaction but makes you feel helpless as a foreigner if you are unable to articulate what you need or want.
This is a town that was not created with the pedestrian in mind. Cars zing along the wide streets at astounding speeds. Drivers dripping with testosterone gun their engines and spin the wheels of their shiny new western vehicles with alarming frequency, scaring pedestrians onto the sidewalks. The effect is that there are huge insurmountable canyons separating the sidewalks on either sides of the boulevards. The crevasses can only be crossed by braving the zebra-stripe crossings or the dreary pedestrian underpasses. A walk across any street in a crossing or out is a test of will between the pedestrian and the driver. No drivers stop or even appear as though they might unless you walk into the street as though you intend not to stop. Only then will drivers yield unwillingly. The last moment before they stop I find myself wondering whether I should run, stop or continue my path.
We had a night out with our new found friends Martin and Karolyn whom we met a few days before in Elk. Martin took us out for a traditional Polish meal. I ate duck that was tasted like a simple countryside confit de canard. And the dinner washed down well with a cool, large and tasty Polish beer. Karolyn joined us late with one of her Polish students whom she tutors in English. Her dour student, though young, acted old and reminded me of a spinster. She voiced her disdain for tourists, admitting she didnt understand what benefit they provided to her country. After dinner we hit the cyber-café to talk a little shop and show off our respective web sites. Ours feels a little shabby next to the slick diversity of theirs. I had to remind myself that our primary purpose is travel not the web, but it left me wishing we had more time to make the BikeBrats site more beautiful and easier to use.
We had another date with queer Warsaw later that night. We were off to the only homo nightspot open during the week, the Kozla Pub. It has an ambiance somewhere between a basement recreation room and a picnic. The small underground room has a few wooden tables and was filled with happy Poles enjoying the night out. At first I felt like I was an uninvited guest at a BBQ. All of the patrons seemed to be hanging out in cliques and not very open to meeting others. After a few beers we became more aggressive and were able to meet many new friends who opened up if approached. We met two brothers, one straight and the other gay. The gay law student seemed more conventional and boring than his brother, who smiled and joked with us. As usual, the ex-pat crew was much more welcoming to us. We met a German called Jurgen and two Americans who had moved here to work in Poland. All three seemed very at home and welcomed in Warsaw.
Walking home I saw the parks of the center. I walked for tens of blocks without ever feeling like I was in a big city. On the way I passed the tomb of the unknown soldier which stands guarded by two sentries at all hours. Their eerie silhouettes against the eternal flames spooked me and I rushed past to make it home to our hotel.
The Warsaw Marriott deserves some mention. It is more American than America. Prices are quoted in dollars, the outside temperature in degrees Fahrenheit, the decor is distinctly American and there are even American power outlets in the rooms. The breakfast is obscene. It is like the most extravagant Sunday brunch served every day. There are three counters that are over 25 meters long spread with food including a make-to-order omelet and waffle bar. Wait staff greet you with a smile and say "sir" and "madam". We are staying here thanks to Andys moms good friend Linda Grunau. She kindly offered to arrange a very special rate for us and we thank her for our little dose of Americana in the East. It is so comfortable that we have barely left its walls, having been so busy trying to clean up our website, attend to our business and bikes.
|29 August, Warsaw to
Radom, 116 km
We got a late start today due to continuing technical problems. Fred had to taxi out to the suburbs to get new pedals as I grappled with tires once again. After battling rude and dangerous drivers for the first few kilometers, we were surprised and relieved to find bike path running parallel to our intended route. It was full of fellow cyclists, too. Through miles and miles of suburban apartment blocks, we followed a pair of shirtless young Poles like greyhounds chasing a mechanical rabbit. Then a voice beside us said something in Polish. It was Jan, our angel du jour. When he learned we were Americans, he spoke to us in perfect and articulate English as he pedaled alongside us. With his ponytail and casual manner, Jan would look right at home in Silicon Valley, so it came as no surprise when he told us he writes code for a living ("I prefer riding my bike," he added). He also explained the presence of the bike path and all the other cyclists, saying that everyone was headed to a forest a few kilometers beyond, where the bike path would abruptly end, forcing us onto a busy highway.
Fortunately, our willing and able guide knew of an alternate route. He led us down a labyrinth of country lanes, past elegant country homes, rolling meadows and dikes holding back the waters of the mighty Vistula (a.k.a. Wisla). At one point he asked us if we wanted to see an old Polish manor house, and soon we were poking around inside an elegant old place which was obviously private. Jan said it belonged to an organization of writers. He had the good sense to put on a tee shirt before entering, but that didnt keep us from getting thrown out by a security dude. "But these are important visitors from California," Jan pleaded to no avail, our sweaty cycling gear hardly befitting visiting dignitaries.
After another stop in an orchard to steal plums, anarchistic Jan took us to the restaurant he always stops at on his bike rides, where we had salads and beers. Everyone there knew him, including many of the other customers, and they all shook his hand while looking at us with bewilderment and curiosity. Then we were on the main road again, following Jan at a very brisk pace. After 50 kilometers of riding together, we parted ways, just outside the town of Warka.
Beyond Warka the traffic dwindled to a trickle and we were able to enjoy our surroundings. Thick forests were interspersed with little villages and scenes of pastoral life: a hunched-over old man herding his cars home with a stick; two young girls on bicycles with their single cow; another ancient woman sitting in front of her hovel plucking a chicken. The houses in this area are made of wood and barely distinguishable from barns or stables. Most had smoke coming out of their chimneys, which given the heat of the day were evidently being used for cooking. It almost felt like wed been transported back to the Middle Ages. As the hot sun sunk into the horizon, people began to abandon their work and sit outside their houses, hoping to catch a cooling breeze. Many waved at us and smiled behavior we hadnt really witnessed since Spain. Had we finally crossed to the south of the "scowling line"?
It was almost totally dark by the time we got to the big, nasty, industrial town of Radom. The only available lodging we could find was in a drab office building doubling as a hotel. Our two-room suite had been recently remodeled without using any natural materials or fibers; the beds, the shower, the carpeting and even the walls were made of plastic. After the usual ablutions we dried ourselves on the postage-stamp towels and went out in search of dinner, the only place still open being a very lively Laotian restaurant called "A Million Elephants." Incredibly, the waitress provided us with an English version of the menu and brought us edible Asian food. I had to pinch myself to assure I wasnt hallucinating the whole thing.
After dinner, I could hardly manage to haul my ass up the three flights of stairs to our weird room/office. Forty-year-old Jans stamina and pace had really done me in.
Our guide Jan, brat du jour
Boarding the first of today's three trains
|30 August, Radom to
Krakow, 8.5 K
At four this morning the forecasted rain began to fall. First a trickle and then a drench fell on the streets. When we finally awoke at around eight it was pouring, which made sleeping another hour seem a better idea than rousing. Radoms grayness was hard to distinguish from that of the sky. When we did finally emerge from our cocoons we were not encouraged. We decided to get up and get some coffee and figure out the days game plan. Our bikes loaded, donning rain gear, we set out into the pouring rain.
The road in front of our hotel, like many roads in Poland, had a trench running down it just left of the curb and rain gutter formed by heavy trucks. This mid-road canyon forms a perfect conduit for rain water to gather and race towards lower parts. Coincidentally this space corresponds to the place that motorists expect bicycles to ride. The drivers seemed especially impatient with us as we occupied "their" part of the lane in order to avoid having to ride through the torrent. They honked, spun their tires impatiently and shouted curses at us with little empathy for our situation.
We wandered about town in the downpour getting soaked to the bone in search of coffee and breakfast. We found no such thing; the only recommendation we were able to solicit was McDonalds, which seemed wholly unpalatable. We gave up and went off towards the train station. I wondered if we should change our name to TrainBrats when we decided to take one all the way to Krakow. It seemed like the only logical option after hearing that there would be rain for the next three days and seeing that the Polish drivers take no mind of cyclists rain or shine. On the way to the train station I nearly became an adornment of a Lada station wagon. The Ladas driver made a left hand turn into me as I raced down a hill to the station. I was so furious as I locked my breaks and slid towards him I cursed at the top of my lungs. Several other pedestrians witnessing his madness joined me in my futile ravings. This incident led both Andrew and me to the conclusion that the automobile should be deemed illegal in Poland and that everyone should be forced to take public transportation, walk or ride a bike.
Getting to Krakow was to be an ordeal from the start. None of the agents nor the information counter spoke English nor were they very patient with our few words of Polish (consisting mainly of town names) and gesticulation. Seeing the ridiculousness of our predicament, a youngster who spoke English beautifully volunteered to act as translator. Even after this good Samaritans effort we managed to miss our train. While we waited on the platform a notice announcing that the train would be ten minutes late was displayed on the quays information screen. At my suggestion Andy happily went off to find us a second coffee and a snack for the train. Just after he ordered coffee the train rolled into the station. I ran to find Andy and we made it back to the platform just in time to watch our train depart without us. Despondently I trudged back to the ticket windows to try a second time to play charades with the rail staff. Already tired of my antics, but understanding (and laughing about) our situation the information clerk grimaced and gave me the time of the next train. Her facial expression left me wondering if shed lead me to the platform by the hand and put me on it herself. Regrettably she sent me off to brave the Polish transportation system on my own. This time wed have to change trains two times instead of once. Our first train seemed to stop every two hundred yards at stations that had more grass than people on the platforms. One phenomenon weve not been able to understand on these small and slow trains is why so many people opt to stay in the baggage cars and drink profusely. Im not so worried that theyll steal anything from the bikes as barf on them.
While I wasnt watching our bikes to make sure that they were not mistaken for "in-flight" bags I gazed out the window. The terrain seemed to change from gently rolling to roller-coaster, from occasional forested patches to mostly wooded with some pastures.
Our first transfer put us on a more traditional European style train with compartments. We sat in a car with an older man who looked like my grandpa Jack (long deceased). We were eating chocolate cookies and I shared them with him. Wed been told to place our bikes in the end of the last car near the door since this train had no drunks baggage area. There they substantially blocked entry and exit which would not normally be problematic. The train was an enormous and nearly empty. Yet everyone wanted to exit and enter at the door near our bikes, each time risking that Andys bike would roll out the door onto them on the platform and crush them to death. When I went to the bathroom at the other end of the car I got some idea why there was more traffic than normal through "our" door. A huge and sour-smelling woman was blocking the door to the train and the toilet at the other end of the car. She and her enormous box made it nearly impossible to get to the toilet. I finally slid by her and recall trying to decide which smelled worse, her or the lavatory. When my Grandpa Jack look-a-like stood up to exit the train I grabbed his suitcase and helped him hoist it over our bikes and handed it to him on the platform. He slammed the door and waved goodbye. When I returned to our compartment I noticed hed left his shopping bag. I grabbed it and ran back to the door that was hopelessly stuck. I tugged at it and yelled to the old man helplessly through the closed door and window. When Andy and I finally wedged the door open, the train made a warning signal and lurched forward. The bag contained two loaves of bread and some vegetables. I couldnt help but imagine the poor old dudes empty and growling stomach.
When we finally arrived in Krakow we were cursed by the conductors for trying to cross the tracks with our bikes. There was, after all, an unmarked ramp nearly a kilometer up the platform.
After exiting transit hell, a short ride in the mist through the old town led us to our hotel. There we gladly soaked ourselves in a hot shower before seeking our first meal of the day. A pizza the size of a trash can lid did the trick for me. A quick spin around the center confirmed my memory of Krakow as one of the great cities of Europe. Great examples of architecture from every era of the city astounded us at every turn. I was unfathomably impressed by how well scaled the old city was for pedestrians and relieved by how little traffic there was. The streets burble with the voices of people out for wild time on a Saturday night instead of ringing with the screaming of tires and engines. The center square is among the most impressive Ive ever seen. At 200m x 200m it stands as one of the largest and liveliest Ive been in. Arcades and cafés ring the square and the central market building that sits in the middle. Crowds of weekenders wander about and listen to music, reveling in the towns energy. All this in a heavy mist! Imagine what must happen here when the weather is accommodating?
|1 September, Krakow to
Oswiecim, 67 km
The sky was appropriately gray as we set off to Auschwitz this morning. Fred and I had decided that after a full day of walking around in the glowing serenity that constitutes Krakow, we could both stand a dose of sobering reality. The desired effect of gloominess was quickly dispelled, however. After a brief encounter with Krakows suburbs, we found ourselves surrounded by gorgeous scenery, all crickety-sounding and harvest-smelling, with a fuzzy yellow sun poking through the clouds above our heads. It felt terrific to be riding unburdened for a change, slicing through a ripping headwind with relative ease. Many of the houses we passed were made of interlocking notched beams, reminding me of the Lincoln Logs I played with as a kid.
At every turn of the winding, roller-coaster road, our eyes were greeted with more scenes of pastoral life: a man tilling his field with a horse-drawn plow; a hunchbacked "apple lady" (Freds term for an old woman whose face resembles a dried apple) shlepping two buckets of milk on a yoke across her shoulders; peasants of both sexes pulling hand-hewn wooden carts full of hay; a skinny man riding his bike while carrying a long-handled scythe (a common sight for us over the past few weeks, which normally arouses superstitious feelings in me, though today it seemed fitting). The people engaged in these menial tasks are invariably elderly, making you realize that theyre a vanishing breed. Their offspring doubtless ride tractors and drive cars, which I realize saves them a lot of toil; but bourgeois American that I am, I still find the older ways more picturesque.
After only 2½ hours and sixty kilometers of swift pedaling, we had arrived in Oswiecim, a small and nondescript town made famous by the Nazis decision to build their largest concentration camps here. We first stopped at Birkenau (a.k.a. Auschwitz II), which despite having been largely destroyed by Germans fleeing the Soviet army, is as horrifying and imposing a sight as Ive ever seen. Its vast size attests to the massive scale of the operation. Only several rows of buildings remain, framing a huge field of foundations and chimneys belonging to what was once over 300 separate prison barracks. High barbed wire fences, punctuated by watch towers, surround the whole complex. Train tracks lead right through the center of the camp to the gas chambers and crematoria on the far side of the site, where over a million people were systematically exterminated.
Fred and I wandered around under the drizzle, seeking refuge in barracks buildings when the rain got harder. On the walls inside, the German slogans in gothic font were chillingly intact, as were sketches and paintings made by prisoners. What struck me was how recent it all seemed, especially after medieval Krakow. All of these buildings were occupied, with trains of people arriving to be gassed every day, less than twenty years before I was born. Its enough to make one question the very nature of civilization.
Auschwitz I was only a couple of kilometers away, but strikingly different in scale and feel from the vast and efficient killing machine of Birkenau. With it tree-lined streets and tidy buildings reminiscent of college dormitories, the older camp felt almost like a country village, harboring a cottage industry in the shadow of its behemoth, assembly-line style neighbor. Inside the buildings, though, are literally heaps and heaps of testimony to the horrors of the place. One hall housed 43,000 pairs of victims shoes, many of them belonging to murdered children, while another contained a virtual mountain of human hair, once destined to be shipped back to the Reich and made into cloth. Other buildings were devoted to accounts of life in the camp, while still more were assigned to individual countries experience of the war and its atrocities. We stumbled into the hall of the Soviet Union, which suffered a total of 20,000,000 war dead. Confronted with such massive tragedy, Fred and I felt awash in an overwhelming numbness.
At five p.m. there was a screening of a film documenting the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz dubbed in English. After a prolonged misunderstanding between Fred and the projectionist-ticket-taker, we sat in the dark while mosquitoes munched on us and a group of Germans talked loudly and behaved as if on a visit to Disneyland.
While we had intended to ride back to Krakow, the sun was already low in the sky by now. Polish roads are no place to be riding at dusk, so we grudgingly climbed aboard another train, the slowest Ive ever been on. It deposited us in Krakow at about the same time that our bikes would have, and the short ride from the station to the town center was no fun at all. A concert benefiting flood victims in the west of Poland was underway on the central square, where we had to push our way through throngs of drunken teens. We intentionally chose a quiet place for dinner, the restaurant of the Hotel Francuski, which features mediocre food and appallingly bad service in an elegant setting.
Back in our room, the t.v. is tuned to the only station broadcasting in English. Fred and I have determined that Sky News the UKs answer to CNNshould be renamed "Di News," since thats all that theyve been covering, commercial free, since yesterday morning. The princesss death has actually affected me more than Id ever thought it would, probably since it happened in Paris and involved a car. An evil car.
Storm clouds over Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Our Salty Lady of Wieliczka
|3 September, Krakow to
Picim, 72 km
Tourism figures so infrequently into our trip that it is always relaxing when were able to make time for it. Krakow is for the tourist, so we had to take advantage of the moment and visit it. When the kings of Poland left it to govern from a more central spot (Warsaw) it ceased to grow and change. Luckily from a political standpoint it was not worth destroying. It was so unimportant to the invading forces that it remains much as it was.
Before departing we spent a day touring the Wawel (Vah-vehl). It stands on a stone mound by the Vistula lording over the old city. Behind its fortifications are a Cathedral, the royal residence, the royal treasury, former military buildings and some ruins. Legend tells us that a cave below the castle was home to a voracious dragon noted for carrying off virgins to his cave and eating them. One brave king had a sheep stuffed with sulfur, ignited the beast and fed it to the dragon who upon finishing his meal found himself a little thirsty. Drinking from the river to quench his aforementioned thirst the dragon made an evil cocktail in his stomach and exploded, thus ridding the community its scourge.
The dragon wasnt the only problem the people of Krakow faced over time. When the invading force of the Tartars arrived and took over the city they shot an arrow through the throat of the town crier as he played the song of warning on his horn. To this day the tune remains truncated and sounds as it did that day marking each hour in the old city. The Austrians and Germans had their time in Krakow too, both managing to carry off many of the citys treasures during their occupations. Knowing the legacy of theft, the Poles sent much of the Castles artwork to Canada just before the first war. When the Soviets demanded its return so they could adorn the Wawel the Canadians balked. It was not until the 1970s that it all came back and now sits in the museum there. One of the remarkable works that is on display is the "Last Judgment" by Bosch, lovely and horrible at the same time. The Kings thrown room is worth mention. The ceiling is an enormous wood grail accented with gold leaf. In each of the center squares there are busts of prominent townspeople. Once every indentation in the giant waffle was filled in with a head, now only forty remain.
Upon arriving at the castle we began to look for a guide, but the geeks who approached us at the gates of the Wawel made us decide it might be better to see it on our own. As we looked out upon the river, in earshot of a guides presentation we realized we wanted to be with this little group. It was a man, a woman and their tour leader. The guide was stylishly dressed, strikingly tan, articulate, concise and interesting. We were reluctant to propose joining the three of them thinking that the couple was British. They turned out to be from North Carolina and were supervising the construction of a Southern Baptist Church in Prague. Theyd taken a day off from work and had but 24 hours to see all of Krakow. They graciously invited us to join them and we proceeded to "do" the Wawel. It was an accelerated tour; we booked through the castle and then the cathedral as fast as John and Libba Pruitt could walk.
As Izabella the tour guide dragged the Pruitts off to see the other twenty attractions in and around Krakow for what remained of the day we were left to see the rest of the Wawel on our own. Wed noticed a young woman wearing bicycling clothes throughout the day as we had visited the site. Finally mounting the bell tower of the cathedral we approached and met brave Ylva. Shed toured much of Northern Europe on her own, getting as far north as the Lofoten Islands. Ylva mentioned that her only woe was that she had run out of things to read in English and was on the prowl for new reading material. Her secret to remaining sane was talking to herself. I really admire her tenacity, knowing Id have difficulty doing such a voyage by myself. Ylva will ride for another two more months before returning to her native Adelaide.
Todays ride included another tourist opportunity, the famous Salt Mine. It stands as the only mine in the UNESCO registry. After having seen it we are not sure why it is a tourist destination. The only really cool part of the exhibit was a church carved into a cavern of salt. Chandeliers, Mary, Jesus, a bas relief of the last supper and all the other adornments of the place of worship were carved from rock salt. The lighting designer of the attraction took advantage of the translucence of the rock salt, making Christs sacred heart glow. The mine employed three miners to create all of the sculpture in the Church, paying them only salt miners wages. The underground workers apparently had a lot of time on their hands because they created 26 other chapels and various other sculpture (including more dwarfs than you can imagine). We spent nearly two hours bored to death 100 some odd meters below ground in temperatures hovering around 55 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Centigrade). We did manage to meet two more cyclists, Monica and Greg. Theyd been traveling for a few more months than we had, but only in Europe. Monica commented that she was glad to be going back to the States in a month. She thought shed appreciated about as much as she could and the rest would better be left for another trip.
After a brief lunch in town we hit the road again. Leaving the salt mine village we mounted a hill that made us climb another 100 meters. Climbing would be the theme for the day. Andy had cleverly plotted out a route that would keep us off a nasty four lane highway. Unfortunately he didnt anticipate how badly the roads were marked and how inadequate our maps were to make such a trip. We missed a turn and ended up hopelessly in the wrong direction. Not being able to correct our navigational error we had to go to the big highway anyway. Andy complained continuously about the error for the remainder of the day. He was very disappointed with our miscalculation which put us some 50 km out of the way and forced us to climb some 500 meters unnecessarily. The big highway turned out to be not-so-bad. It wound through a beautiful river valley and there was a little road on the other bank that gave us 12 km of refuge from the whirring cars. My head throbbed from lack of food and Andys crooning about our mistake so I insisted we stop at a roadside motel. Slovakia will have to wait for tomorrow.
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