A loop around Poland

Enchanting trails of Bieszczady mountains

First, we pick the most interesting places of Poland and then decide to spend around one month to follow the loop inside our country. We do our best to keep a safe distance of a hundred kilometers from the capital, as in order to stay a bit from the beaten track. In early July the Polish arrives Bess, friend from Minnesota, and together with it we take a trip.

We start in Szczecin. For several days we travel on bicycle through local forests in the area of the Bay of Szczecin. We pass forest paths, some of them barely passable.

It is worth to visit Lake Świdwie Reserve along with several pubs on the way. The bar in Węgornik and the other one in Bartoszewo are places where we have a cold Bosman beer (a local one) and eat fried dumplings, again, the local specialty. The place’s unusual design is what attracts  my attention. All of the tables and benches arerough-and-ready  hand made items from random materials. Fresh air outside gives so much more relax as compared to the crowded city center.

Poznań in the beginning

Accordionist at Wawel Castle

On the way to Poznań we get heavy rain. We are lucky to be going by car, as the rain resembles a thick wall of water. I wonder whether the motorcyclist we passed a few minutes ago on a highway is still alive.

We meet with some other friends in Brovaria, a small brewery located in the Old Market. In this elegant style establishment we have a house brewed unpasteurized beer with natural sediment. As the managements state, it is the third place of this kind in whole Poland. All kind of beers served here have very distinctive taste.

The rains seems to be following us all the time. This time it starts pouring while we are walking around Malta Lake. We hide quickly under the trees and try to figure out an emergency plan. We visit the recently renovated major parish church. A lavishly decorated pink Baroque façade of the building encourages to enter the spacious inside. We walk through the market square to admire colorful, historic buildings and located right in the middle Town Hall. We go to the restaurant "Red Sombrero" to have tortillas with different species of meat. Everyone seems to be tired by now, so we do not move on until the following day.

Towards Cracow

Old town in Cracow

The Auschwitz concentration camp. Crematorium, gas chambers, cells, cans of Zyklon B gas, heaps of clothes, shoes, personal items and hair. Barbed wire around the camp with the ironic words above the entrance "Arbeit macht frei" (German: "Work makes free"). It’s a depressing place has unjustly claimed nearly one and a half million lives.

We stop at Old Walls Hostel in Cracow. All of us fit in the largest of the available rooms. While walking around Krakow’s old town I realize that a lot has changed here since my last visit five years ago. Now it is far more focused on tourism, mass entertainment and soliciting random passers-by to enter the club.

Well, a lot of weekend hikers here from the old countries of the European Union. I’m a disappointed because I stay on guard for the entire evening and I fail to see any drunken Englishman screaming and running naked around the Old Market. It is said to be currently one of Krakow’s highligths.

In the morning rent out bikes. We manage to find the best and the cheapest rental shop "Two Wheels" on the Józefa 5 Street. Worth to mention the shop is operated by handicapped. We visit market stands in Sukiennice, then take a ride to Wawel to greet the basilisk and now as far as possible along the Vistula.

At some point Dorcia ensures that she would bring us to a bar serving the biggest pork chops in whole Cracow. After hours of searching we actually find this place. Our massive pork chops the size of two-thirds of big plates are served at the table. Along with boiled cabbage and cold beer it makes our truly decent feast.

Traditional costumes

Early in the morning we pack our stuff and leave for aquapark. It turns out that the fastest kamikaze slides were dismantled a few years ago for safety reasons. Later on we arrive to Wieliczka mine. I experience a cultural shock upon seeing huge line of people at the square outside the mine’s entrance. Not to mention there is no shade and it starts to be unbearably hot. "You’re lucky, today we have a very short line, sir" – one of the guards begins with pride in his voice –"may take up to two hours."

Unanimously we agree to cross out the salt mine from our flexible itinerary and continue the journey towards Bieszczady mountains.

Bieszczady

Strong gale at the mountain meadow

Bieszczady is a less visited by tourists part of Poland. Therefore prices are also lower. A small bottle of water "Celestynka" in a roadside bar may cost as little as 15 cents.

The road is bumpy and after a while we have a muffler breakdown. We stop at a gas station. A polite teller takes us to company garage, where we get a piece cord made of copper. A little bit of time repairing and a makeshift solution is done, for which I give warranty for the next 2,000 km to work. Seller does not want any money, so in return we give him two beers.

 We pitch our tents on the campsite in Ustrzyki Górne, while at the same time making our steaks ready for BBQ.

Early morning we enter into the Bieszczady National Park. We reach summit of Tarnica (height about 1345 meters above sea level) and try to move along the ridge leading to other mountain peaks as not to loose too much altitude.

We ascend to an extremely windy meadow. As you open you mouth towards the wind you hardly can utter any sound. It turns out that the descent from the mountains is more tiring than going up. To sum up the day, we have already walked 17 kilometers. As we reach the road we get surprised by two cars with the capital license plates to give us a lift to the campsite. Pretty exhausted we get our deserved portion of bigos (a typical Polish food, which is a stewed cabbage with meat) and a beer in one of chalet restaurants.

Połonina Wetlińska is left far behind

Soon we discover there is a river behind the campsite fence. We clear the way to the river through lush nettles. Once being through I realize there is an alternative path leading from the campsite’s gate. The water in the refreshing mountain stream is at most 15 degrees Celsius. After such a long day hiking a cold relaxing bath is irreplaceable.

Let’s go hiking again, this time an ever further trail. With a strenuous effort we arrive at the mountain hut "Chatka Puchatka", then continue to Połonina Caryńska, Przełęcz Orłowicza, Połonina Wetlińska and Smerek. We have an intense pace and excluding two running scouts not a single person is able to overtake us. Typically we cut in half the time needed to hike suggested by the road signs. During the day we are able cover a dozen or so hours of trail.

Strong sun can be felt. Skin on my face is irritated on one side only, because most of hike took place in one direction.

The transportation back to Ustrzyki Górne is carried out by a bearded savage mountaineer. He remains silent for most of the time, however I manage to learn that during the last storm, his minibus was carrying 28 people, or some 200% of the maximum people allowed. Not to mention that he is quite a reckless driver. He proudly recounts and boasts himself of how some senior ladies are afraid to take a ride with him.

We have a few days of good weather until the following morning, I hear the rain drops falling on the canvas of my tent. I also hear Mati’s voice waking me up, "Rad, get up, we are leaving." It is good that we already have hiked a lot before the torrential rains.

Random side roads

Colorful houses on the market square in Lublin

We stop for breakfast at a village shop. There is a bar next door. We buy whatever is available, which are pate, bread, cottage cheese, tomatoes and buttermilk. "Do you have coffee?", Dorcia asks salesman. "Yes, we do, but only the one you brew" – comes the response. "Isn’t it a bar just next door?"– Dorcia continues her investigation. "Yes, that’s right, that’s a bar. Sure we have draft beer, but no coffee." It’s raining, so we eat our breakfast under the roofed bus stop. To my surprise, our road brings us straight to Lublin downtown. I just realized that Paulina, my very good friend from college, lives here.

Lublin

Our car is park just off the promenade leading to the market. At the old market, by Krakowskie Przedmieścia we meet up with Paulina. Walking around we see the castle and a few cobbled streets in the city center. We go to the Irish restaurant to have cold beer and fried fish in pesto. We are extremely happy with Paulina’s hospitality, as she invites us to stay overnight at her house.

Old Town in Lublin

We visit another retail brewery on our route, this time on 15 Grodzka 15 Street in Lublin. I order unpasteurized pils type of beer with natural sediment . It turns out later that today it is the only one available.

Another interesting place is a Polish folklore restaurant called Sielsko-Anielsko. In this truly idyllic inn the waitresses disguised in traditional Polish clothing give us beer served together with lard and cream cheese with bread.

Walking from place to place time goes by quickly. We return at dawn, still we manage to get up in the morning for biking. We go for a ride around Zalew Zemborzycki. This is one of a few places in Poland with a wakeboard and water skis lift around. It starts to rain, pouring more with every minute, on the top of that one of the bikes breaks down and we have to tow each other in turns. Be it cold and wet, however we are not made of sugar.

Wilanowo and Tokary

Traditional kitchen

We arrive to Wilanowo. The property once belonging to my grandmother becomes our lodging for several days. It is of about half a hectare plot of land on which there is a modest hut, a wooden shed, a pigsty and a barn, once filled up with hay. In addition there is a garden and an orchard with massive field of uncut grass. We came here to see something that people have long ago forgotten. For me it is also travel inside the sensual memories from my childhood. A soup kitchen, wood fired stoves, a hot chicken broth, scrambled eggs with mushrooms in the morning, a glass of cold water from deep well, plentiful butterflies, deers, rabbits, wasps and hornets and fresh rural air. I love this place for the state of relaxation I achieve by performing simple daily routines.

After days of tramping finally we have a chance to unpack our luggage. We hang our wet tents in the barn and in the same way wet clothes are being hung in the attic. I’m going to show my friends around the village.

Zucchini straight from garden

One little village shop is a place where people meet in the early afternoon. Excluding the harvest season these are casual meetings without any special occasion. Łomza, the only beer available here is sold in small but thick bottles. Locals drink beer warm. There is an easily visible sign saying "Consumption of alcohol within the shop area is banned". Here it serves to cover a window hole at most, as everyone drinks beer in front of the shop. That is the time to get news from the village life and spend some time gossiping. After all, nobody is in a hurry.

At daybreak we set off for picking up mushrooms. Treading through swamps we make our way to the large forest. Not so many mushrooms actually, would barely be enough for the morning scrambled eggs. We come across huge field of ripe and sweet blueberries. When our hands are already purple from gobbling up everything we decide to start collecting the berries into our baskets. Once accumulated a good two kilograms of berries and we go back home with an idea of pancakes with blueberries topped with whipped cream for dinner.

We have a big problem with the long-unused chimney in the summer kitchen. The smoke outlet is blocked so it doen’t come outside, but stays inside causing eye irritation. We bring a ladder trying to push a stick through the chimeny, then we disassemble a few bricks and finally the chimney starts to work properly. It costs us a little effort and so many eye-irritating tears. Finally we can make our zucchini with minced meat, tomato sauce, fried onions and noodles.

Our tents drying in the barn

Tokary is a village neighboring with Wilanowo. We visit the Polish-Belarusian border, where Tokary has been divided by the Soviet Union in 1945. That decree set a new border, which in fact went exactly through the middle of the village. That is how my grandmother has been separated from her sisters. As in the film "English Patient" Katharine Clifton stated "We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men". It is the identity to determine where one does belong.

A visit once requiring a short bike ride has became irretrievably a several our trip for which not only you need a visa, but also to make a massive detour to a remote border crossing and complete the same track on the Belarusian side. If the new border had been set a few miles west, cutting Wilanowo in half, I would have had lived in a different world. Misfortune, luck, fate, adversity or perhaps an absurd caprice of the powerful men? Call it want you want. Life is a set of lottery tickets.

Mazury

We stop in Pisz, a city nearby north-eastern Great Masurian Lakes . Our host if Mati’s extremely hospitable aunt. She prepares food for five of us, however the huge amount of that is being placed on the table would surely be enough for ten people. This is a full-size sitting including soup, stuffed cabbage, pasta sauce, chicken, vegetable salad and cucumber salad for the main course. Then comes tea, fruit compote, jelly and ice cream for dessert with whipped cream and a lot of fruit. The state of starvation suddenly changed into the state close to exploding from overeating.

We organize kayaking down the Pisa river, which is a right-side tributary of the Narew river, lying in the basin of the Vistula. Pisa flows from the Great Masurian Lakes system and starts right here in lake Roś in Pisz. Our approximately 17 km long route including a couple of lunch breaks and occasional rowing upstream takes us about around five hours.

Lake Śniardwy

We drive to Mikołajki, where we charter a yacht named "Sasanka". For this gorgeous three-berth yacht having a total length of 660 cm we pay as little as $90 for the whole day.

We start out at the Mikołajki Lake. First we unmoor the yacht and reach the open waters with a little help of the engine. We unfold the mainsail and the smaller sail mounted in the front of the boat. Our boat passes through a narrow channel and contrary to the owner’s recommendations we do not sail towards the small Bełdany lake, but we move on straight onto the waters of Śniardwy, the biggest lake in Poland. We sail leeward so there is no so much tacking needed yet. In our spare time, one or two of us jumps into the water to swim in a lifebelt while being towed by a line attached to the sailboat

Suddenly the weather worsens. I note that all yachts but ours are already moored along the grassy coastline. At this point we take down the sails. It’s getting really dangerous, as strong gusty wind throws us on sides with even stronger waves not helping us at all. The water has not yet poured into the interior of the boat. I hope somehow we are going to handle our miserable situation. After about an hour long struggle the weather improves and with skilful navigation we manage to complete a whole round around Polish biggest lake. Here is a record of our Śniardwy trip during the storm . The way back needs a lot of tacking, especially back the narrow channel, but we do not give up and with no use of the engine we reach Sasanka’s mother bay.

The northern section

Teutonic Castle in Malbork

We hit the road again. The traffic jam on the way to Sopot makes us think about an alternative route. We turn into a quiet side road, where we can see the fields with people harvesting crops, forests, scenic villages and local shops.

Soon we stop in at the Teutonic Castle in Malbork.

This is a three-part defensive stronghold built in the Gothic style, whose construction began as early as in the thirteenth century. This is one of the largest preserved buildings of this kind in the world.

As we reach Sopot we find a campsite, as described by Bess "the most ridiculous campsite I’ve ever seen". In fact, our campsite is the size of a large supermarket, every single tent is pitched next to the other one and with a nearly total space already used, in order to drive your car to your tent you need to rearrange some other neighboring tents. We have no choice, because it’s the only open campsite in the area.

We go to the beach to play frisbee. The water in the Baltic Sea is slightly salty and warm. As we stroll towards the pier, a waitress in one of the pizzeria’s gives us the essence of co-called Tri-City. "People work in Gdańsk, sleep in Gdynia and have fun in Sopot". As we are in Sopot, it is time to have fun.

The following day we reach Szczecin, our origin and destination, completing a loop around Poland.

An extra round

Canoeing on Lake Lubie

Three thousand kilometers is not enough. We set out to the island of Wolin to see the bison reserve in Międzyzdroje and spend a few more days by the sea. The monotonous crowd of looking the same and having no personality tourists walks to and forth the main promenade. Those folks would stop from time to time to buy a set of decorative seashells, Haribo jelly beans or deep-fried flounder with French fries. Whereupon they go sunbathing in a nearly standing position on a crowded beach . I realize that it is what Polish seaside looks like in high-season.

We skip the seaside to move on to Pojezierze Drawskie,  the nearby area abundant with lakes.  In Gudowo, a nearby village, we find a small campsite with marina. The place is run by a friendly couple from Gdańsk, who have already lived here for more than twelve years. We rent canoes to paddle down the river. At times the current tends to be strong and basically the entire route has numerous obstacles.

Typical landscape of Pojezierze Drawskie

There is lot of fish in the channel leading to the Lubie lake. The water is clear and you see many algae and aquatic plants. A moment of lost attention makes our canoe block under the thick branches. The pressure from the river flow produces a significant tilt. Immediately our boat tips and both of us go underwater. We manage to save some food, a backpack and a missing paddle quickly flowing away. All the rescue operation takes place in the water with a calf-deep mud at bottom and a on the shore full of nettles.

From now on, we try to paddle a little more cautiously, daring to pass another obstacles less recklessly.

The itinerary around Poland

Every moment you have to lean, slow down or perform an emergency turn. Sometimes the best solution needs you to scratch your back and arms. Huge limbs and smaller branches are everywhere. These bring along a number of insects, ticks, spiders and other biting creatures.

Struggling a lot we finally reach lake Lubie. It is already dusk. There is an absolute peace and silence on the intact surface of the lake. The sun starts to set above the line of trees and is being reflected on the entire length of the lake.

We are completely soaked, have no dry clothes and it is getting colder. The water, however, is delightfully warm. As we reach the harbor, we run along the pier and jump into the lake to give our trip a great finish.

August 2009