We arrived in Poland with very little idea of what this large, Eastern European country had in store for us. Over our time here we have come realise that the history of Poland – wether it be when Imperial Russia, Prussia and The Austro Hungarian Empire decided to wipe them off the map for a while, or the horror of the Nazi and Soviet occupation, or more recently the brutality of communism, the Polish spirit has prevailed. There is a kind of distrust and disregard for authority (on some level) that we really enjoyed. After the organisation and rule abiding countries of Northern Europe, we felt freer. It suited our vagabond life of wild camping and pedalling. We were treated with much kindness and despite the worrying move of some towards the political right, the people we met and spoke to, convinced us that this Polish spirit will continue to shine against a new nationalism.
Things immediately changed as soon as we arrived at the ferry terminal to take us to Poland. Firstly everyone wanting to take the ferry was Polish. There was a kind of organised chaos that we didn’t quite get. And unlike everywhere in the last two months, we couldn’t pay for our ticket by card (so I madly rode around looking for an ATM, worried we were going to miss the ferry). Once on board it became apparent we did not have enough cash to pay for our ticket, but the kind captain let us on anyway, saying we could go to an ATM in Kolobrzeg. The boat itself was all red velvet, brass, wood and sailor uniforms. I felt like we had stepped back in time and I liked it.
We arrived in the port town of Kolobrzeg and I loved it in an instant. It’s weird perhaps, but I finally felt like I was somewhere else. Just the feel of it was different, even in the darkness. Our host Maciek greeted us enthusiastically and led us back to his place to meet his family. We probably couldn’t have asked for better people to introduce us to Poland. Maciek, Ewa and their kids were engaging and interesting and we spent a lovely few days getting to know our new surroundings. We talked politics, history and got information about what we should see while in Poland.
The Baltic Coast
Armed with information and bucket loads of enthusiasm we headed off on the Eurovelo 10 towards Gdansk. Eurovelo’s for anyone not familiar with the concept are long distance pan European bicycle paths. It depends really on the enthusiasm of the country and municipality on how the funds get spent. It Poland this varied a lot. At times we were on smooth bicycle paths complete with bicycle work stations, other times pushing through sandy tracks, or on awful soviet era concrete slabs. Never the less we much enjoyed our ride along the Baltic coast which was heaving with holiday makers. In the towns that hugged the beaches we were confronted with a brilliant mix of communism meets capitalism with and 80’s sense of fashion. Bum bags were all the rage. We remarked that had this been at home we would have cringed and avoided it, but here it was a delight to see how enthusiastically people embraced all the kitsch fun there was to be had.
Our days consisted of low kilometres, swims in the sea, searches for sorbet in the supermarket fridges, easy to find wild camps and beers in the warm evening. It was hard not to feel like our summer holiday was stretching on and on.
Our first destination was Gdansk where we were embraced by the friendship of Anna, Robert and their cat Ozzie. Warmshowers is always wonderful but sometimes you really end up making friends. So it was with Anna and Robert and we extended our stay. During the day we explored Gdansk (and went to probably the best museum I’ve ever been in – the European solidarity museum) and in the afternoon and evenings we’d hang out with Anna and Robert – going to the beach, eating delicious food and exploring the less known parts of the city.
Because the four of us really didn’t want to part ways, to give us an amazing send off, Anna and Robert rode 80k with us to Robert’s friend’s farmhouse in the countryside. There we sat by the fire, eating amazing food and sharing wine. It is these connections with people and the landscape that bring me the most joy. Looking up into the sky, the fire warming my face, conversation flowing around me I thought: this is why I travel. It was such a heartwarming, life affirming feeling.
Saying goodbye to Robert and Anna was hard. We all shed a few tears. What wonderful, generous and fun people they are. I know we will meet again some day.
The Mazury Lakes
After exploring the Teutonic Castle of Malburg our route took us east towards the lakes of Mazury. This area is a network of more than 200 lakes, connected by rivers and canals. People mainly come here to sail and when we turned up at a (free) campground we were greeted by a handful of yachts already moored. We were quickly invited over to join the group around the fire. Astrid and I both felt a bit awkward as we didn’t want to make people speak english on our account. We decided to go over for half an hour to be polite. Of course this being Poland we were warmly embraced, given food and spirits and spent a wonderful night chatting and listening to the occasional spontaneous outburst of Polish song. I think we stumbled into our tent at about 3am.
The next day i kind of lived out my Robinson Crusoe fantasy. Being a little unfit to cycle we decided to stay. As it was the end of the summer holidays all our new polish yachting friends were leaving. So it was just Astrid and I and this beautiful lake. We built up a fire and kept it going all day, heating water for endless cups of tea. There was swimming, reading, meditation. A perfect, lazy day like we don’t often have, completely devoid of any technology (all our devices after days of camping were flat).
Bialowieza National Park
In the far eastern corner of Poland on the border with Belarus lies one of Europe’s last primeval forests which is also home to half of Europe’s Bison. In 2017 the Polish government began logging parts of this forest that had until now not been logged (plus tripling the quota of logging permitted). There was an international outcry and EU’s top court ordered Poland to stop. While logging has slowed, it remains under threat with Poland’s conservative, anti EU government fairly keen to continue to devastate this wilderness for profits. Having heard about what was going on and wanting to see the forest for ourselves it was here we headed next. And what a magical place it was. It resonated with my soul, there was something truly wondrous about standing in a forest that had barely be touched by humans. Even though we had spent so many nights camping out in the woods, this place felt different. It was wild in the true sense of the word. These places are precious in a way that cannot be easily described, let alone translated into profits. I hope for a day when human’s will stop decimating this finite home of ours and realise that we are all connected to the planet and by destroying it we are destroying ourselves.
Meditation and forests
While Bialowieza was the only true old growth we visited in Poland, our time here has been dominated by forests. Asides from the Baltic Coast and the lakes, almost every night has been spent in the woods. Often plantation pine but also natural forests. Being autumn and knowing a little about mushrooms we were able to pick and eat chanterelles and a new one for us “chicken of the woods” (this mushroom seriously tastes like chicken when cooked!). It was exciting to forage part of our dinner and it was very delicious. We also began meditating every morning, which fitted in so well with our quiet, natural existence. While this may be a cycling blog, I’ve never been one just to write about our experiences on the bikes. For me it’s a one dimensional way to tell this story. Travelling by bike with hours each day to think, reflect, meditate, really makes you face yourself; you cannot hide from who you are, or what is going on inside. I have written before how I find this life makes you feel and experience things more acutely. And here in Poland we both began using meditation as a tool to foster even more calmness and happiness. At first I found it very difficult but before too long we were both meditating up to an hour each day and have completely made it part of our day.
Warsaw and Krakow
I kind of always enjoy seeing the capitals of the countries we visit as after all this is where the majority of the people live. A lot of locals questioned why we would want to go to Warsaw but Warsaw ended up being one of my favourite cities. It’s not always pretty but it is vibrant, rich in history and full of amazing vegan food. In fact Polish cities all had an amazing selection of vegan food which surprised and delighted us. Heading south towards Slovakia we of course visited Krakow, which everyone had told us we must visit. And yes, it is beautiful and special in a way those rare cities not destroyed by world war two are. It also would be weird to write about Poland and not talk about the Holocaust. The horror of the Nazi occupation, concentration camps and mass graves are hard to ignore. At one point we unintentionally wild camped right near a memorial where mass murder had occurred in a forest. And in Warsaw we stared at the place where the Jews had been loaded onto trains to be flung across Poland into various Nazi concentration camps. By the time we reached Auschwitz both Astrid and I felt like we had had our head in this dark part of history for many weeks. The camp’s themselves were obviously horrific. State sanctioned incarceration and genocide on such a scale with such organisation is absolutely petrifying. It left us feeling emotionally raw and haunted by the spectre of Fascism that is once again spreading across Europe, felt especially strongly here in the east.
The Tatra Mountains
Lying on the grass in a park in Krakow, our bikes packed and ready beside us, Astrid and I realised we were a bit exhausted. Since leaving London we had been on the move most days, camped 98 percent of the time and been hosted the other 2 percent (aside from our cottage in Copenhagen). We had spent very little time inside, just the two of us. It’s a mental exhaustion I had forgotten about. The one that creeps in (at least for us) after a few months. We didn’t want to talk to anyone or see any sights. I wanted a kettle, a kitchen, a space that was ours (not our tent) and some wifi. I wanted to sit in my pants (undies) and watch netflix, or a film. Read a book. Write. Drink wine. Do yoga. Maybe go on a run. I didn’t want to engage with anyone but Astrid. I didn’t want to cycle. I wanted tea. And toast.
We made a decision and booked a flat on the edge of the Tatra mountains. This happened to coincide with a severe weather front that was about to hit (we’d had weeks and weeks of sun and it was September). We pedalled two days from Krakow into the beautiful mountains and late on the second day rolled up to a cute little place we were going to call home for the next five nights. What utter luxury. It was amazing to have this space and exactly what our brains and souls needed. We did all the things I mentioned above and by the time we were ready to leave felt well refreshed.
Now it was time to leave, not only the comfort of 5 days of indoor living, watching weather fronts rather than being in them, but also to finally leave Poland. When we arrived at the beginning of August, summer was still in full swing. Our two weeks here had somehow very easily become six and we could feel the hint of autumn. The trees were slowly turning, the air in the morning had a hint of cold and the light had shifted to be infused with gold. It was time to head into the mountains of Slovakia.