Thursday, 27 May 2010

Dozing in Domacyny

Hi everyone,

Finally I am here! I arrived at my father's home in a very rural part of south east Poland near the, currently very flooded, River Wisła at 6.40 pm on 26 May. Here are the stats :-
  • 8 weeks in all

  • 41 days cycling

  • total distance on the road 2322 miles, of which 2224 going place to place.

  • Daily average excluding rest days 54.24 miles

  • Overall average distance per day 41.46 miles
  • 6 flat tyres, one worn out tyre and one broken pannier fixing

I reckoned on a daily average of 45 miles or 35 miles including rest days assuming a distance of about 1800 miles, so I managed to do over 400 miles more (not surprising given the way you have to "pick your way" on a bike, so increasing the averages. But no matter, I only found it a strain a few times, mainly in France where both the hills and prevailing wind were against me.

Covering the last few miles was a problem given the state of the river, with many roads impassable and only one bridge for about 50 miles being open, so even on my last day I managed to do an extra 15 miles. But it is great to have managed it, to be here with family, albeit that they can't understand most of what I am trying to say in the few words of Polish I possess, and to have done it unscathed, with both me and the bike intact. There's a picture included of a typical roadsign I encountered which together with the traffic in some places could have served to damage me, the bike or both.

So now a commentary on the last week or so. The first picture above was of Plock. I ended the last blog with Ken and I marooned in Wloclawek as we waited a day for it to stop raining. We made a bolt for it to Plock the following day, but got a real drenching and that didn't help the repair of the two flats that Ken had on the way. But Plock turned out to be very gracious, a bit like Bath, see picture of its skyline by the River Wisla. The hotel was fun though, being an ex Orbis, with Olga Kleb still on reception.

The following pictures show the grey and flooded Wisla as we left Plock - its state of flood was to affect the last days of the journey, but for then it brightened into a wonderful sunny day proving that Ken does not just bring bad weather with him. We had a splended day cycling through sunny meadows past storks on nests, which became an increasingly common sight, there are two huge nests in Domacyny.

These last few road pics also show the decorated crosses that continued everywhere and the dodgy roads with loads of bumps and potholes. Overall though Poland has been a lot better than I expected, generally no worse than Britain, so a good preparation for coming home!

We had another night in Socharzew before cycling into Warsaw on the day Ken was due to leave by train. What a pleasant surprise the city is after all I had read about concrete communist blocks. True there are lots of those, but they are no worse than many I have seen in UK and the city is very green. The next pictures are from Marek, my cousin's son's flat near the centre and he and me in one the many lovely city centre gardens

Marek is a great guide and knows his Polish history intimately. It really is a sad story of a nation fighting for its existence separate from Germans, Austro Hungarians, various other marauding mobs long ago and most recently and in the 19th century, the Russians. The next few pictures show some heavy Russian architecture resplendent with statues of heroic workers and thinkers. The huge tall Palace of Culture was a gift from the Russian people to the Poles and was designed and transported stone by stone from Russia to Warsaw; it houses many theatres, conference halls, opera halls and cinemas and was once the tallest building in the city.

Of course, Poland is most famous as the birthplace of Frederic Chopin. He exiled himself in Paris away from the Russians who controlled Poland in the 19 and 20th centuries until they were booted out by Marshal Pilsudski in 1920. The pics are of Chopin's statue in a huge park where free concerts are given throughout the summer (there's clip of the recital we spent an hour at at the end of this blog), the church enshrines his heart and I am standing in front of the statue of Copernicus, with spinning planets in the ground all around.

Before Pilsudski Polish rebels, many of them from the emerging left were either imprisoned for many years, executed or sent off to Siberia in the wagons that now sit outside the fort built by the Russians to dominate the Poles in the 19th century.

Hving got back control of their nation the Polish again lost it in 1939. The pictures that follow show a young fighter in the Warsaw uprising of 1944 and a monument showing the fighters who went into the sewers to hide in the grim last days as Stalin held his forces across the Wisla away from helping so that the beaten Poles could be "freed" by the Russians in 1945.

We also found the site of the Jewish ghetto wall that surrounded the jews in 19423-43 until many were transported away to their deaths by the Nazis

Bu now Warsaw is really vibrant. It's a party atmosphere on a weekend and we also found some lovely buildings that echoed Warsaw's pre war past. Although 85% is said to have been destroyed by the Russians and Germans, there are elegant tenements and both Warsaw University and Marek's university where he got his doctorate are splendid (that's its central hall in the final Warsaw pics below).

The final days of my journey turned out to be more of a pilgrimage than I had expected. The journey to Radom was fine, but the least said about Radom the city the better, very functional and grey, with huge heating pipes going from the central energy factory to the north to supply the city - a bit like those screen savers we used to use. See below

My last night before getting here was at Nowa Slupia. It is set in rolling hills which form one of the few Polish uplands away from the Carpathian mountains which bound the country to the south. Wooded and undulating the area is mostly national park with a huge monastery on one of the highest points. It is said to contain relics of the holy cross transported here to be accepted by King Boleslav (really). It has been a a place of pilgrimage for centuries. I was guided around by Macek the novice monk, who gets his good English from reading The Lord of the Rings - I think he found me a welcome break from the hoards of school children who seemed to be the only pilgrims in evidence when I was there!

Here's me with a carved pilgrim paid for out of EEC grant!

At last I got to the crossing of the Wisla, about 500 metres wide here, only a few miles from my Dad's village. Everywhere here is very flooded after the worst rains for years, with frogs croaking in all the sodden meadows and everyone complaining that their potatoes are rotting in the ground. There are still many farmers around with plots of only 5 hectares or so. I have seen only one horse drawn wagon, but there are still many small milk churns outside farms and labourers using scythes on their small strip fields. All you can hear is the croak of frogs, a few barking dogs, lowing cows and birdcall. I am sure my Dad would recognise what I am seeing as i cycle around this delightful area. Only the people are different......and most have cars now, often more than one.

I have been welcomed by everyone. I am surethey think I am mad cycling all this way. But there have been lots of hugs and kisses and last night I spent the evening supping vodka and was even given milk freshly tugged from the family cow. The picture below is of my cousin Christina's son Andrej and his wife Katerina (on the right) along with her sister in law and their young babies.

So, this is the last blog. Thanks to you for following it and to those of you who have posted comments. I hope it has not been too sad or boring. I'll look forward to seeing many of you soon and to discussing the possible next stage to Greece via Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Macedonia.

Now, here's some Chopin from Warsaw to finish off with!

Bye all!!

Monday, 17 May 2010

Wandering to Warsaw

Hi Everyone from Rainy Poland!!

Ken and I are holed up in Wloclawek about 100 miles from Warsaw. Big floods in the south so we have decided to stay on a day in this hotel which is very plush, was a salt mill and is a complete contrast to the other places we have stayed.

The picture above is of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, which we left a week ago. We had a fine time there, although I found much of what I saw profoundly sad. Below is the Reichstag which Hitler defied and ignored as he built up his Third Reich. Below that is the Holocaust monument next to the Gate, which is built of huge concrete blocks resembling tombstones which you sink down into as you walk through. It is vast and is built on land which I believe was occupied by the Wall and nomansland before reunification. Behind are the blocks of buildings which comprised East Berlin and still mark a virtual divide between the more salubrious west and the crowded tenements you find all over the former Eastern Bloc, even outside small country villages.

We took a walking tour with a Dutch American guide who was full of anecdotes. The plaque in the ground commerorates the book burning that took place in the square in the next picture which has Humboldt University behind. The Nazis denounced socialist, Jewish, slav etc writers - how sad, George Orwell might not have done too well, but what of Zola or Dickens?

Another scene of great sadness is, of course, the Berlin Wall. Much of it has gone, including Checkpoint Charlie, but there follow two pics, the first near the centre is preserved (you cannot hack bits off as souvenirs any more - in fact they reckon the souvenir sellers have already sold far more wall than ever existed!) and the second we saw on our way out. It serves as a vast art gallery - Banksy would have been at home.

Before leaving though we had great fun visiting an unsad part of the communist legacy - the famous TV Tower which the East Germans built ostensibly to broadcast from, but which has a very god view to the west.....................! I had been put onto it by Wolfram LIbermeister a lecturer form Humboldt Uni I met in Amsterdam. He met us there after Ken and I had been up for the view and to celebrate his 65th birthday - that's him with the cake.

We had two more days in Germany before crossing the Oder into Poland. Here's me before crossing its vast floodplain. Wonderful ox bow lakes, but I'll not bore you with more Geography now. We crossed into Poland on an overcast evening passing the deserted guard posts before arriving at The Bastion Hotel in Kostrzyn where we learnt about the Polish love for piped pop music. But the people have been so lovely and friendly. The roads have been another matter, but more of them later.

A couple of days travelling in warmer conditions than we had had as we left Germany got us to Poznan. That's its old market square in the picture following. All the cities and towns I have visited have had these and they are a mark of the vast trade flows that there were across northern Europe in the 1300 - 1700s, a kind of silk road European style, with evidence of many craft guilds in places like Poznan.

We stayed in a backpackers hostel close to the centre, quite a seedy place run by a guy who smoked electric cigarettes (really), But at least I got my washing done (to quote R. Daltrey). But our recent hostels have been a great experience. Favourite was Munchehof, the last in Germany and in a little village of about 25 houses where we sat with the warden to eat the meal his wife cooked up for us. That's it with the white walls. It is followed by a picture of Ken cycling away from Konin hostel, our last port of call. We envisioned a hostel by a lovely set of lakes. Well, they are, but not when you are loking out of our bedroom window at the aluminium smelter across the water! Also you'll note the huge pipes going to the hostel. We guessed these were part of the vast communal heating systems put in to serve public buildings in areas like this. Last point here, note lack of sun in most of last pictures - boy has it been cold, if not wet until today.

Now, about hthese roads. When they are good they are great, but when not, as like as not they will be dirt or not even exist. Ken did a great job before leaving home of plotting all our routes on cycle GPS. But we have found some routes impassable - we even did 10 mile on cobbles through fields the other day, but that's what I came here for and it's what cycle touring is all about. Even where the road runs out a you have to carry your bike - see pic of Ken!

We have yet too see lots of Poland and we are sure it will be very attractive, but in the meantime, a very attractive feature right now is the decorated crosses and other icons dotted around in every village we pass, presumably this is because of the recent passing of Mayday. In fact some individual houses, however small, have their own. And the churches proliferate, many of them with wooden walls and wood shingled roofs.

So, now it's a couple or three days to Warsaw where I meet my cousin's son, Marek and stay for a couple of days before finally cycling on to my Dad's home village about 100 miles further south. Ken sadly leaves for home by train on Thursday, so I'll heve to learn to survive again without GPS to find the hotels and hostels. Will I manage?? Watch this blog space for the next exciting and probably final instalment of Surowiec's saunterings!!!

Love to all.