Early Sunday morning. Few people are out. And Polly is happy to walk.
We wander down the modern bank of the Odra river, where the multimillion pound offices of the big consultancy firms and solicitors look out across the water towards the old town.
The landscaping of all of the modern areas we’ve seen is excellent, and here is no exception.
Every thriving town must blend its old and new, living in a museum can’t be much fun. In Wroclaw the river provides a convenient meeting of the two.
The many benches are mostly occupied by sleeping forms this morning. Revellers who didn’t quite make it home, and drunks who don’t quite remember where home is, if it exists at all.
Even the empty benches are surrounded by the finished bottles of a warm summer night enjoyed by many who were perhaps a little too tiddly to risk carrying the glass to a nearby bin.
Many of the countries we’ve visited have quite high deposits on bottles and cans, resulting in a new economy of tramp collectors. In Hamburg it’s close to a cottage industry as down and outs with a view to better things collect anything with a redeemable deposit.
We saw one fellow getting hell from his fellow bums for dropping and smashing a bottle.
The down side is that people no longer put bottles in bins. I’m sure the thinking behind leaving them out is sympathetic. It’s then easier for the collectors to collect, but it leaves a hellofa mess until they do.
I don’t know whether this is yet the case in Poland. A keen gang of collectors could do well sweeping through Wroclaw this morning.
I realised that our excellent parking spot, by the Panorama Gallery and close to town, is also at one end of The Old Town Promenade.
The Promenade is a 2.8km avenue that’s wide enough to be called a park and follows the inside curve of the old town moat. It’s pretty, lined with mature London Planes, although perhaps here they’re Wroclaw Planes, with benches facing the moat. After the hot summer there’s algal bloom on the water, but still you see the large fish swimming there.
The only drawback for the parking space is the coach drivers’ habit of leaving their engines running, sometimes for hours. I wonder why they do that?
Wroclaw may be unpronounceable (for me), but it’s a fine city with a varied offering, even great graffiti. I hope we’ll return and spend longer, but now it’s time to move towards Krakow.
Overnight in Tarnowskie Góry.
We’re collecting Janice, my sister, at Krakow Airport (the John Paul II no less) on Monday morning so we camp midway on a site, intending to clear the van of its waste, and top up on water.
We pulled onto the quite lovely Camp9 at Tarnowskie Góry and book ourselves in – see the photos on Amanda’s Our Tour page. The site is small but well done with a decent cooking and lounging area that’s unusual anywhere, let alone in Poland. Then we discovered that they’re on an eco mission not to use mains water or drainage. While laudable that’s not much use when you want to dump a chemical toilet cassette. Hey ho, we had the best sleep in ages, woke to a cool sunny dawn and went to a motorway service station to do the dirty stuff.
A brush with the police.
Decades ago when my mate Spencer and I used to travel Europe we’d be pulled up by the police on such a regular basis that it didn’t seem unusual.
Our first brush with the law in Poland was more of a surprise.
We’d arrived at the airport about an hour early and I was sinking into the grip of a cold.
I needed a sleep to regain the energy to be sociable, and take on a new city. Only a couple of miles from the airport we find a quiet pull in. We park up. And within a minute I’m in the back and sinking into slumber.
Amanda wakes me after only minutes saying “The Police have pulled up. The real Police” (there are so many security firms patrolling in Poland that look like police, and they often stop to look at the van).
Groaning, I dragged myself out to see what’s what.
“You can’t park here.” She said in good English.
I wasn’t going to argue so offered to move immediately.
She continued “This is a Polish army base and you can’t even stop here. Documents!”
It’s probably a hangover from their paranoid past, they love to check documents. I wander what they’d think about Britain where we don’t even carry ID?
She wanted me to wait in the van while she compared my clean shaven passport photo to the very beardy man before her, but I drew the line at that – never let your documents out of sight!
After a bit of note taking we were told to clear off – just in time to slide along the road sheepishly and pick up sis.
We’d booked into another central AirBnB, linked here. It’s in the heart of Kazimierz, the old Jewish town on the edge of Poland’s jewel city, yet easy to find, and miraculously we parked the beast right outside the flat’s door.
Kazimierz is great. It is in that exciting period when much of it is still pretty run down, but it’s on its way back up. Many buildings are in a poor state of repair, while the property next door may house very expensive flats.
Prices have sky rocketed here over the last few years and it’s easy to see why.
It’s ten minutes walk into the old town, or to the river (the Vistual runs around Krakow), and its wide range of bars, restaurants and cafes have been able to establish here on old cheap rents. Let’s hope they’re not priced out as landlords cash in.
Dinner in Hamsa is like a trip to Jasmin in Chorlton, with the benefit of eating outside on a balmy evening with a dozen languages being spoken around us. The food is great Israeli fare, served with a big smile and a small price tag. Hurrah!
Krakow is THE tourist destination of Poland. It’s the only place we’ve visited where visitors have considerably outnumbered the locals.
There is no doubt that it’s a very attractive place.
The Stare Rynek (old town square) is huge, it has the remains of fortified walls, a spectacular church, and lots of fine restaurants and cafes lining it.
Wawel, the castle, is both historically and culturally significant to Poland, and it was declared the official presidential residence following independence in 1918.
Kazimierz, where we were staying, is a lovely area and the best place to stay and hang out. It’s noisy at night, and indeed, with building works it’s noisy in the morning too, but there’s an exciting buzz to it all.
The riverside isn’t yet as developed as some towns we’ve been to, but it’s pleasant for a stroll with the dog.
On our second day we headed south of the river to walk through Podgorze. This is the ghetto where the Nazis “housed” some 18,000 Jews in an area where 3,000 people had previously lived.
Passing through areas where the most barbaric events of modern history took place is draining, and yet life goes on. The town is lively and resounds to noise of building works just like anywhere else.
A few minutes down the road the Schindler Factory reminds us of the story of the German entrepreneur and his efforts to help his slave labour force. The museum is much more than that as well. It takes you through the events of Krakow’s war from its bombing on 1 September 1939 right up until the arrival of the Soviets in 1945. It’s a tight space that is best visited when quiet. It’s interesting, thought provoking, but is best visited before the amazing WWII museum in Gdansk.
Despite all the history I felt less excited about being in Krakow than in other towns. If I come back to Poland for a longer stay it’ll be to Wroclaw that I head (I best learn how to say it then!). There or Gdansk.
After dropping sis at the airport we covered the short distance to what must be the ultimate memorial of the Nazi atrocities, the camp outside the small town of Oswiecim, better know by it’s German name of Auschwictz.
We’ll stay nearby overnight as we have tickets to visit at 7.45 in the morning.
Sitting in the car park now I find it strange that there are post war flats and houses right up to the edge of the concentration camp. I can’t imagine living near such a place.
I had a vision of it being far from anywhere, surrounded by forest. I am both deeply interested, and troubled by the prospect of our visit tomorrow. I suspect it’ll be one of the lasting memories from this journey.
Before that though, let’s get salty.
Wieliczka Salt Mines.
The salt mines are a little south east of Krakow, and don’t sound that interesting, yet they attract 2 million visitors a year – there must be something good to see.
Fortunately friends recommended a visit and we’re glad we took their advice.
We parked up in one of the town’s many areas offering basic facilities. For £8 we had a decent level space, clean toilets and a shower, as well as the chance to fill up with water. Bargain.
After a good sleep we were early to the salt mine queue on a perfect morning to be underground as the rain fell for the first time in ages.
Salt mining is big in Cheshire, but not on this scale.
The Wieliczka complex was mined continuously for over 700 years and now has over 200kms of tunnel diving to 335 metres underground. As our guide was keen to inform us, that’s enough to hide the Eifel Tower, and cover it with another 3 metres of soil.
Even the excellent walking tour took us down 110 metres, that’s a lot of steps!
It weaves through high and wide shafts, all with wooden props (metal would corrode), and through vast cathedral like chambers, complete with chandeliers. There are several chapels where the deeply religious miners would pray before their gruelling shift, and there’s still a service every Sunday in one of them.
This was no Soviet style salt mine slave colony, miners worked extremely hard, but also had good healthcare. Unlike most mines, the air deep underground is extremely healthy and there are now clinics for those with respiratory problems within the complex.
With today’s rain came a fall in temperature to remind us that autumn is nearly here. The leaves have been falling for a couple of weeks already, starting with the horse chestnuts, but temperatures in the high twenties make it hard to believe that summer was slipping away.
OK. Deep breath.
Every political leader should visit Auschwitz early in their official career.
Each should be helped to understand the intense evil humanity is capable of.
How momentum can be so difficult to reverse.
And each should commit to ensuring its story is never repeated.
As this site gradually returns to the soil.
As its last survivors and last eye witnesses leave us.
The memory of the horrors deliberately perpetrated by the Nazis must live on if morality is to prevail.
Rather than write about it, I urge you to visit.
Here are some of the statements you’ll read there.
And in Krakow.
Van life into the autumn.
How fortunate we have been to live outside through Europe’s best summer in anyone’s memory.
Now, deep in Poland, with only a couple of days before we head over the border into Slovakia, the season is changing.
It’s dark by 7.00pm – that’s inescapable.
Yet nearly every day is still a lot warmer than we’d expect at home.
On the other hand the leaves are falling, and soon, we know, the temperature will change too.
You notice the encroaching evenings more than anything in the van.
There are many nights when all that keeps me out of bed at 8pm is the need to take Polly out for her late pee. And of course that pee is always in the dark now.
We’ll start a concerted effort to head south for a while. That should help on the temperature front, but won’t make any difference to the darkness.
Perhaps that’s why so many vans have TV?
We rarely stop to reflect – but it’s a great thing when we do. We’re well into our fifth month living in this tiny mobile space, we nearing 9,500 miles, yet it still doesn’t feel real. As summer is slips away we’re more aware of the adventure – and we still love it. The hits home every time we move back to the van after a few nights in a house or flat. The first van sleep for a few nights is always ace.
After the intense experience of Auschwitz, and the long underground walk at Wieliczka, we headed a little north east of Krakow to Zalipe.
Zalipe is a small village. In fact it’s just a few houses, and some sort of community hall, but it’s the houses that make it important and almost worth the drive.
For years the women in the village have had a novel approach to repairing the cracks that might usually be seen to mar their houses. In a very Polish approach to the Japanese art of kinstugi the women use not gold, but painted flowers, to paper over the cracks in their walls.
It might not have been quite worth the 50 mile drive in the wrong direction, but nonetheless we loved seeing a dozen or so houses beautifully decorated with flowers. Here are a few favourites…
Our intended parking spot outside the community hall wasn’t available. There was a wedding there and cars were left all over the place. Instead we headed for half an hour towards Zakopane in the Tatra mountains to arrive at Tarnow. Now we’re comfortable after a great chickpea and spinach curry in the park there. We’re unlikely to see more than its park, but hey, it’s quiet, dark and soon we’ll be asleep.
A Poorly Polly.
For a good few months Polly has been nursing a damaged cruciate ligament in her back right leg. Let her run around too much one day and she’ll be hobbling the next, but generally she seemed to be doing fine. This morning though after a nice bit of scampering around with another dog she limped away badly and is clearly in pain, not wanting to touch the ground with the poorly leg. We’ve find a vet in Zakopane tomorrow, but I fear that she’s worsened the previous damage, and it’s not something that can repair itself.
On the positive side – we have found hills! We’re parked for the night at Czorsztynskie Lake, about 30 miles from Zakopane, and the last 15 miles getting here have been the most picturesque of Poland so far. It feels cleaner, greener and a lot more interesting.
Around the lakeside families have been arriving all afternoon, swimming, fishing and messing about in boats. It would be beautiful were it not for the volume of litter wherever people congregate.
It’s Sunday and I’ve never seen so many people going to church. Every church we have seen has had a huge number of cars outside, and several have had congregations spilling out onto the street.
Mindy’s sunset pics at the lake are beauties, and now, on Monday morning it was shrouded in mist when we woke. An hour later and the sun is beating down, it’s perfectly still, the only sounds are the gentle hum of ArchieVan’s fridge, and thousands of tweeting birds.
Memories of Poland.
Zakopane, while pretty, didn’t retain us, instead we slipped over the prettiest border we’ve seen so far and into the immediately different Slovakia.
Poland’s not all exciting, in fact covering the miles is often tedious, but it’s worth putting up with.
We’ve spent three weeks, the longest anywhere so far, and the time has been good.
There are few of the cute wooden houses of the Baltic countries here, and here there’s no obvious building vernacular outside of the old towns. There’s not a lot that’s new to draw your attention, and as I love the modern that’s a shame.
In the south we left the awful the roads behind, and on the bigger roads the penchant for scary overtaking was less obvious.
The country is largely flat and agricultural, though we’ve seen very little livestock, or wild life come to think of it. That tends to mean that the driving is boring, going from one nondescript dusty town to another, but that all changes in the bigger cities.
Torun, Gdansk, Poznan, Wroclaw and finally Krakow are all such interesting and beautiful places that it’s worth the miles in between. Wroclaw was my favourite.
For anyone visiting with less time than we enjoyed should probably visit a couple of the cities and get the most out of them possible. It’s hard not to go to Krakow, but still I’d recommend Wroclaw and Gdansk.