Paul & Janita's Home Page

Poland

 

4/5 October

 For the fourth time in less than a couple of hours, the black BMW cruised down the hill past the decaying reminders of the long-gone 'darker days' of the Soviet empire -  rusting Trevants, gutted

vans of unrecognisable origin and the tangle of neglected, overgrown security fences and disconnected light poles. Following was the same gray Chrysler. Dressed for a theatrical performance of the

Godfather, in black skivvies, dark sunglasses and leather jackets, the occupants quickly alighted, unlocked and entered the blue-grey doors of the 'lockup', and disappeared from view.

 Sounds like a seventies spy novel and maybe it is?

 We are not sure whether our imagination has been fueled by stories of the active Russian Mafia in Poland or we are really onto the heart of the infamous Polish 'luxury car recycling' industry. Contributing to the effect is the lingering fog which, with significant periods of sunny relief, has followed us all day.

 Accompanying the two lead vehicles on each visit have been cars of lesser pedigree, but still slightly above your normal Polish street car. An Opel, a Mazda and a VW sedan have all carried interested parties to the mysterious 'lock-up'. This is Camping Sleza, Wroclaw. (No, we did NOT make the name up!)

 More bizarre events occurred later in the afternoon but for now, yesterday.

 To understand any culture one has to look openly at all aspects. Having seen the beauty of Prague and the historical wonders of several small medieval towns, we took ourselves off the the Ossuary at Kutna Hora in north eastern Czech Republic. 'These people are seriously warped'.  The flat Australian  vowels were unmistakable in the small church decorated with the bones of 40,000 people, apparently just for the hell of it, in the 1870s. The voice was not one of ours but one of the many fellow Aussies we encounter wherever we go. An hour or so before, Paul had been lugging a computer monitor - yes he could no longer tolerate the B&W screen and bought a cheap monitor! - to the top of the hill in Kutna Hora. As he took the last step he heard the flat tones and chipped in that he could do with a hand. The answer was as expected - "Get serious mate!" This young couple were driving and camping around and believe it or not they live in Yeronga!

 Crossing the Polish border was not nearly as painful as we had expected after our last try. The border was heralded by the normal kilometer or more line of stopped trucks, but horrors! we still had crowns to spend. A supermarket just before the border saved our bacon - and spent all bar about 50c of our money, although it was a hard task. Czech crowns just buy so much more!  We scoured the supermarket for "things to buy." For those who are interested, panty liners now come for G-strings, so the "flossing effect" will not be so painful. Then, to the border crossing. The guard insisted on a quick look in our shower/toilet- why??-  and, we were off.

Polish roads are a notch below those in the Czech Republic. They are a bit rough but still nothing out of the ordinary by Australian standards. However, they don't come with the standard girls in short skirts plying their trade - a disappointment  for Paul who thought he was hot stuff after being given a card by a call girl in Prague........ 

We already know the city of Wroclaw (not Warsaw) fairly well after driving through the middle of it twice to find the camping grounds. Wroclaw has about 700,000 inhabitants and is on the Oder river and tonight and tomorrow night so are we.... along with the strange operators of the 'lock-up'.

 The story continues.  

As the afternoon drew into misty darkness (nice, hey!) the activity at the Mafia lock-up increased. The BMW and Chrysler returned yet again - this time with a number of small vans in convoy. The tableau was enhanced by a little blond child of 3-4 who pranced around between the leather-coated men and their cars. Trying hard not to be seen to be observing these exchanges, we sat in our van and directed our gaze elsewhere -  all the time knowing that a major international Mafia conspiracy was being played out before us.

 Then all was revealed. As a careless 'apparachik' flung the door open wide enough for us to see... we had stumbled on the Great Polish Kitchen Sink smuggling ring. Yes indeedy, under cover of late afternoon fog and darkness, kitchen sinks were being traded by men in fast cars,  dark sunglasses and leather jackets. A plot not dissimilar to the great Naples brothel discovery of 1987 (for those in the know!).

6 October

 'Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness' - was it Keats or one of the other Romantics? Autumn can bring an attractive hue of yellow, gold and red to a city. Sadly, in the case of Wroclaw, nothing seems to cover the grey. On the other hand the fruit bit is another story. Roads throughout the Czech Republic and so far Poland are lined with apple and pear trees. We have not tried the apples (on advice) but the pears are unbelievable. Just like they used to be at home before the advent of freezers and chemical ripening. 

To be fair, today is probably the worst day we have had in terms of weather. The sun was up there and the sunnies were required to deal with the glare, but the mist/haze/pollution hung on all day. Much to the detriment of our view of Wroclaw.

 The city has had perhaps one of the most unfortunate histories of any European city. Close to the borders of present day Germany, Austria and Hungary, the state of Silesia of which Wroclaw is the largest city, has been torn every which way for a thousand years. The city was only returned to Polish control after the second World War and even then it was in a desperately poor state! The retreating German Army was ordered to stand and hold Wroclaw which it did for 81 days, during which time, 70% of the city was destroyed by Russian bombardment. 

As much as the west enjoys disparaging the work of the Russians in their now 'lost empire', the work completed in these eastern cities under their rule is significant, if not always of the best quality. Photographs of the devastation of cities like Wroclaw have seldom surfaced in western documentaries. In comparison, London and even Coventry received 'but a scratch'.

Enough rationalization. - Why the hell did the rebuilding include the use of cobble stones? The further east we go the more prevalent these little blighters become. For those who are not aware the cobble stone is a square rock ranging in size from10cm square to 20-25 cm square. Used to pave roads in the days before the motor car they seem to be regaining popularity as traffic calming devices even in the west! It is in the countries of Eastern Europe that the cobble stone reaches its modern zenith! Carefully laid (and constantly relaid) over what ever surface may be available, cobbled roads cover the major thoroughfares of many Eastern European cities. On clay they are a nightmare. Dipping and humping, they keep front end mechanics in demand everywhere. In a van with lots of 'rattly bits' they are impossible!

Sadly Wroclaw did not leave us gasping for anything more than fresh air - the fumes  were overwhelming! A nicely reconstructed city square and an extremely patriotic panorama painting of a major Polish victory over the Russians in 1794 were of note.  

Tomorrow we strike out further east to Warsaw, only 300kms but given the time it took us to drive from the border to Wroclaw (120kms), we will make an early start and hope to beat the rush hour in central Warsaw. 

7 October

 A late hazy start. We hit the road about 9.45am. Surprisingly, we had an easy exit from Wroclaw as Camping Sleza was beside the main road to Warsaw. 

The road improved as we got closer to the capital. However, the interesting uses of what we would call the emergency lane on major roads is worth of comment. Cyclists, horse-drawn carts, mushroom-sellers and the ubiquitous 'girls', all use the emergency lane. None of this would normally be a problem, except that this lane is also considered a usable half a lane by the traffic going in your direction (but faster), which wants you to move over into it (NOW!) and, even more disconcertingly, by those coming towards you, who also expect you to move over. The rule seems to be that the faint of heart, basically us, hug the far right verge. The rest of us overtake in either direction whenever we feel like it.

  

Approaching a bend, expect to see a large truck on the right side of the on-coming lane and at least one vehicle, sometimes a bus, passing it on what we would consider to be our side of the road. Adding to the excitement, those who share our side of the road and our direction can elect to pass whenever they like, including when the above combination is coming at us at 70-120kms/hr. Add to this the above-stated fact that others tend to use this 'non-lane' for various purposes and you get some of the picture.

 As the large vehicles continuously pound the right side of the road they make 'truck ruts' in the road surface. These create a nice floating effect. Janita loves them -  both when driving and when seat-clutching on the passenger side.

 It may be difficult to believe but all this seems to work with minimum loss of life and all seem to play the game with good will and a real sense of co-operation. We think we heard one horn blast all day.

 As we entered Warsaw, we were grateful that the fog had cleared to a clear, fine, very warm day. The first impression is of a large (pop 1.7m) prosperous industrial city. The rich farmscape in the 100kms or so approaching the city was in the throes of harvest. Almost every house and farm has a small stall selling mostly potatoes, apples, cabbage and slaw (shredded cabbage ready for turning into sauerkraut) all in large - about 5 kg - bags. The city approaches are much like the outer industrial suburbs of Australian cities. Lots of space, large modern factories and every now and then, monstrous supermarkets. The prize for the biggest to date now goes to the Geant complex, Warsaw. How many varieties of sausage can you think of? Will they fill almost 50m of display cabinet?

 Polish kids congregate in these 'malls' much the same as at home. They are well dressed and impressively well behaved. Note: In Europe flared trousers and platformed shoes/sneakers a la 70's (for those who remember same) are all the rage!

 We found the camping area more by good luck than good management. Confronted by the 'Frau' that the Nazis refused to take home and the Russians declined a visa, we had to use the best of our dumb foreigner acts to get into the supposedly closed park.

 Meanwhile, as we write, Midnight Oil is belting out on Warsaw radio. AC/DC is very big everywhere in Europe and the AC/DC T-shirt is the uniform of the very cool! Sixties and seventies music is still very big in the east. Maybe they are catching up on what they missed. The Bee Gees, Beatles, Abba (yes lots of Abba) and even Gilbert O'Sullivan for some reason? Our record collection is looking GOOD!

 

8 October

 

Warsaw's suffering at the hands of the Nazis is well known. The uprising of the citizens under partisan leadership in 1944 and the revolt in the Jewish Ghetto in the same year both led to savage reprisals against the citizens and the city. The Jewish cemetery holds the graves of over 100,000 Jews who died in the uprising. Many thousands more were buried in mass graves or died elsewhere in concentration camps. Up to 250,000 Poles are said to have died as either a direct result of the partisan uprising or as a consequence of mass reprisals by the Germans.

Today nothing remains of the physical surroundings of these atrocities. The old ghetto is now parkland and row after row of grey Soviet-style apartments. In the centre of the city, almost 90% of buildings were totally destroyed as the Germans systematically demolished the city block by block late in 1944.

 A spectacular monument completed in 1989 commemorates the Warsaw uprising. Far less imposing is the monument to the Jewish heroes of the revolt in the ghetto.

  

The 'stare grad' (old city), has been beautifully reconstructed, mostly from original plans gathered from archives from throughout Europe. The heart of the city has returned. On the day we visited - again blessed with beautiful weather - the people of Warsaw were out in force. Churches were full (Sunday) and the squares and main 'strolling' thoroughfares were packed. We joined the passing parade and walked for more than seven hours around the city and most of the way back to our camping grounds in the inner 'burbs’.

 We suspect that we saw more of the city than your average tourist as we were on foot and mostly lost. The new city is modern, clean and could be in any western European country. Again, a bit of a sad comment on the increasing 'sameness' of cities world wide. The infiltration of western commercial enterprises such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Dominos, Athletes Foot, Foot Locker, KFC - to mention a few, all housed in mega-shopping centres make us feel totally at home -- and that's NOT why we came here. 

This morning we skipped breakfast in preparation for a lunch at one of Poland's famed 'Milk Bars'. Expecting a large range of famous Polish dumpling dishes, all that was available was a limited range of soups. We selected bean and beetroot. Paul didn't mind it, but Janita took several kms of walking to stop gagging. Imagine a can of butter beans mixed with the juice and tail-end remnants of a can of Golden Circle beetroot, heated up and poured into  a bowl. --- this was lunch! She says she did well to only gag.

 

9 October

 On an afternoon like this, with the heavy mist and early autumn chill, the outskirts of the small city of Oswiecim could otherwise be the same as scores of similar towns we have driven through in eastern Europe. Except that the German name for this town is Auschwitz.

 Unknown hundreds of thousands of people died here.

 Leaving Warsaw this morning was easier than we expected. Except for the odd truck ruts in the highway, the roads were good and we arrived less stressed than usual. The city of Czestochowa is the most visited religious site in all Poland. The painting of the 'Black Madonna' equals Lourdes as a mecca for pilgrims. Disappointingly, the Madonna was not on display during our visit, but fortunately we did not  have to resort to travelling on our knees in search of her as other pilgrims did. We kid you NOT! The Poles are a VERY religious race. 

Trains pass our camping spot going to and from Oswiecim. It is impossible to hear the clack, clack of the wheels on the sleepers and the whistles without thinking of the trains that rolled down this line sixty years ago. Just across the road is the main gate to the camp. 

10 October

 One and a half million people died between 1941 and mid 1944 in Auschwitz/Birkenau. The scale and extent of this horror is indescribable ...................

 

11 October

Earlier impressions of Poland have had to be drastically re-assessed. If we had (another) $1M this would be the place to invest, if it isn't already too late. If Wroclaw (as opposed to Warsaw) is one's only image of Poland - it was our first - then we could be forgiven for despairing the country's future. But beyond this unfortunate city is a country which has achieved surely one of the greatest 'phoenix acts' of the last century.

 

The much publicised crime and destitution are virtually non-existent (except in poor old Wroclaw). Today we wandered around Krakow, the only Polish city to escape annihilation during WWII. Reconstruction in other Polish cities has been beautifully and faithfully undertaken. But there is nothing like the real thing. This city has a level of sophistication at least equal to Prague - but again - the Poles have an easy way (like the Czechs) that makes one far more comfortable than amongst the 'haute couture' of the more recognised centres of European culture.

 The Wawel (Royal Palace) is the historical heart of Poland and the seat of the past Kings of Poland and the Stare Miastro (Old City) provides a fascinating wander through history. Polish cathedrals - at least here - are the most highly decorated we have ever seen -- every part of walls and ceiling are garnished in some way!  

Every European city has its own special "thing" - Krakow's involves a trumpeter who blows on the hour - interrupted (figuratively) - as his 14th century counterpart was (literally) -  by a Tartar arrow.

 The Jewish section was a bit of a disappointment. After Auschwitz, you expect some further recognition of the Holocaust, but the Jewish section of Krakow is almost unrecognisable - apart from the many synagogues (for a city of 100 Jews). 

School children of all ages swarm all over the historical monuments of Poland. It seems their history is of major importance! And it is also obviously important to the multitudes of Australians we hear around the traps of every European city we've been to so far. Our concerns about Poland appear to have been unfounded. People everywhere have been friendly and helpful. 

 

12 October

 From 1.3 km under the ground to 2000 m above. Not bad for one day. This morning we visited the salt mines at Wieliczka outside Krakow. The mines have operated continuously for five hundred years and tourists have been coming here almost as long. It is claimed that Copernicus himself visited the mines! However we suspect that it is one of the few places not blessed by a visit from the Pope!

Miners have amused themselves over the centuries carving incredible statues and whole rooms out of the rock. Some of the works are most spectacular, as is the dedication that has gone into the carving. One monstrous room was largely carved by one man who worked at it for over 25 years up to the mid-sixties… when his younger brother took over!

The trip down was via at least 700 steps and we kept thinking that what goes down must come up, but we were "saved" by a mine lift containing not more than 9 people which zoomed to the surface at the rate of 4 metres/sec, to the accompaniment of school children screaming. Most comforting!

 At the other end of the scale, tonight we are camping at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains at Zakopane about 90 kms south of Krakow on the Slovakian border. A mostly sunny clear day was rudely interrupted by gale force winds for about an hour just before sunset. Then, within minutes, complete calm. Great for clothes drying, which is another of the major issues in the 'van-biosphere'.

 Washing is something that some of us (mostly males apparently) take for granted. Dirty clothes out, clean clothes in. What could be more simple? Nothing could be further from the truth 'on-the-road'. Washing machines are somewhat scarce in European camping grounds and the general rule is the night after you do a hand wash of every stitch you own - the camping ground has a machine!.....which is fine, IF you can understand the instructions. In Dresden, we could only manage to make the spin cycle work!! 

Drying is fairly easily done, especially when the weather is fine. A few hours dripping in the breeze is the start of a process that involves turning the car heater up to the maximum and closing all the windows! Knickers, socks and all other assorted bits are then rotated over the heater vents in the front cabin. A normal day's driving is usually sufficient. We simply ignore the curious glances directed at us by truckies, people in villages etc. 

13/14/15 October

 Oops! Missed yesterday - and the day before.

 Did the tourist thing in Zakopane for the morning - checked out the market stalls - took the funicular to the top of the mountain and marvelled at the views - and the temperature - 19 degrees at the top but 24C at the bottom.

 

Later, crossed into Slovakia with no problems and drove, aiming at a quick visit in Bratislava. Overnighted at a "Services" on the motorway, nervously because there were no trucks, but our fears were unwarranted. The next morning we drove on to find a far better "Services" only a few kilometres down the track! We had planned to spend a day in Bratislava. However, in the spirit of 'if it's Tuesday it must be Belgium' we decided to drive on and have a couple of unscheduled days in Vienna.

 Crossed the Slovak-Austrian border about midday after about an hour and a half wait! . Weather was again fantastic. People were out on the streets of Vienna in force on a day that can only be described as 'freakish' - uncomfortably hot (25+) and humid? Clear, sunny but with a little haze. Hard for us to take in when it was

 -15C the last time we were here.

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