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Hiking in the Tatra mountains

Posted: 2006-07-31 02:52:35, Categories: Travel, Poland, 137 words (permalink)

I arrived in Zakopane a few days ago and did a two-day hike on the Polish side of the Tatra mountains. The region has a lot of lakes between the peaks and offers some magnificent views. I was lucky with the weather especially on the first day. Rather than writing a long description I decided to compile a picture gallery of the hike.

The town itself is similar to other mountain resorts, so the nature was of course the main reason for me to come here. However, there are a couple of interesting things in the town as well, especially the Wladyslaw Hasior art gallery was worth visiting.

It has been a nice change after the mostly flat Polish countryside and bigger cities, and tomorrow I'll cross the border to Slovakia for more mountains and natural parks.

Warsaw and Krakow

Posted: 2006-07-25 11:45:25, Categories: Travel, Poland, 433 words (permalink)

Bird sitting on a statue in Lazienki parkI spent five and half days in Warsaw, leaving Monday July 17th, and arrived in Krakow on Friday. So I've seen both the capital, currently also Poland's biggest city, and taken a peek at the ancient capital.

The old town of Warsaw was mostly destroyed in the second world war but rebuilt after it to minute detail. The job was done so well that it was difficult to imagine that the whole area was almost flat still 60 years ago. The buildings were in nice shape but still genuinely looked old. Perhaps the best hint of the destruction was actually that the style was almost too perfect. Modifications done during the 19th century and first half of 20th century were not recreated during reconstruction so there were no modern looking structures between the old style buildings.

I liked Warsaw quite a lot. The old town was nice and while it was fairly small it wasn't too crowded. The area surrounging the university had a nice athmosphere, topped with a library covered by a garden on the roof. During the summer there were plenty of concerts, many of which were held outdoors free of charge. There were also a large number of good museums and pleasant parks scattered around the city. For example the museum of the Warsaw Uprising was exceptionally well done. I thought I'd be done with it in an hour or less, but eventually spent 2.5 hours looking at the exhibits.

Krakow had better luck in the war: it's the only big Polish city which survived with little damage. The historical city center of Krakow is therefore genuinely old and boasts almost an overload of historical architecture. In addition, many buildings have magnificent cellars which are filled with numerous cafes, bars and clubs.

The downside is that Krakow is also well known among tourists which come to the city in masses. There can be long queues at the ticket counters, marketing tries to squeeze everything out of old legends and souvenir shops fill open spaces. In that respect, despite all the reconstruction Warsaw felt somehow more original than the well preserved Krakow.

I don't mean that I'd be disappointed with Krakow. There are lots to see, there's good nightlife and the city is also surrounded by several interesting places. Ojcow national park and Wieliczka salt mine were beautiful and Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (especially the Birkenau part) was a must for a different reason. I'm planning to still spend one and a half days in Krakow to get a better grasp of it and then ride to the Tatra mountains to escape cities again.

Two different nights with the locals

Posted: 2006-07-25 11:20:10, Categories: Travel, Poland, Hospitality exchange, Cycling, 1019 words (permalink)

I like traveling without advance reservations. While on the road I often don't know in the morning where I'll spend the following night. Usually it's easy to find a hostel, a guesthouse or a nice place to camp. However, sometimes everything doesn't go exactly as planned and that can add some extra spice to the trip.

Scene 1: Hospitality of an alcoholist

Last Tuesday I was looking for a hotel or guesthouse in a small town called Jozefow. According to my map there should have been one, but a quick tour in the city center didn't reveal any. I stopped at the main square by the pharmacy and asked two men if they knew the way.

One of the men was willing to help. He first seemed to have an idea of where the hotel might be, but then muttered something which maybe meant that it's closed or that he didn't know after all. Then he asked me to follow saying that he has a sofa and I could sleep there. Well, why not, I thought, even a place to set up the tent would be enough. It was obvious that the man had had a couple of drinks but it didn't look too bad.

Ten minutes later I was in his flat. If I'd make a list of the worst flats I've seen, that would have probably scored the top. Yes, there was a room with the sofa, plus a table, a chair, a TV and even a tiny bathroom. Besides that, the furnishing consisted of a few dirty plates and cups, beer bottles and cigarette stubs which were all over the place. The short corridor between the bathroom and the room was flooded — it later turned out that flushing the toilet would spill part of the water on the floor. At that point I would have rather escaped, but it was too late. All my bags were in the flat, my bike locked in the cellar storage room and it was already dark outside.

My host's name was Krysztof and he was more drunk than he earlier appeared to be. He offered me a beer and was clearly happy when I had working matches (his own were wet) and could help to light his cigarette. I accepted the beer but successfully refused remains of some unidentifiable foodstuff from the bottom of a jar. Krysztof did not want my bananas or oranges. He clearly wanted to have a conversation with me, but due to the language barrier we didn't get much further than saying our names and where I come from.

I thought it would work out best if he had some sleep so quite early I indicated that I was tired. Krysztof produced a surprisingly clean camping mattress from behind his bed and insisted that I'd use that instead of my own. I took it but replaced the offered moist blanket with my own bedsheet. I placed the mattress strategically so that he had an unobstructed path to the bathroom, my handlebar bag with valuables and bicycle helmet were next to me under the table so that he couldn't fall on them and started thinking about scenarios which could occur next morning. Fortunately Krysztof also soon crashed on the sofa.

I even managed to get several hours of sleep before around six Krysztof woke up and decided he needed more beer. There wasn't any left in the flat. I suggested the shop and he came to the conclusion that it's best that I leave at the same time. I was more than happy with that solution, so quicker than ever I had all my stuff out, my bike out from the cellar and I was on the road again. Krysztof headed towards the shop and I gave him 10 zlotys (2.5 euros) beer money. After all, although I didn't particularly enjoy the night, he tried his best to be friendly and offer his hospitality. Maybe my visit was a highlight for him and made a good story later in the local pub, or maybe it was quickly forgotten — I'll never know.

Scene 2: Camping at a meat factory

The Barczyk meat factoryTwo days later I was in a bit larger town called Wolbrom in the same situation as in Jozefow. I had planned to go a youth hostel which was marked on my map but couldn't easily find it and it was getting late. This time I chose a group of young guys and girls to ask for help. They had no idea about the hostel but knew about a new hotel nearby. However, they said that the hotel would be expensive and offered a safe place for my tent. Sure, I thought I'd give it a go and opted for the camping.

The guy leading the discussion turned out to be the son of a meat factory owner. Incidentally, also his name was Krysztof, but I knew it was going to be a different experience this time. The place to camp was in a guarded area on the yard of the factory. There was a large lawn which was perfect for the tent and even a toilet and washroom I could use. I quickly set up the tent and went back to the city center with my new friends.

That was a fun night. First we went to a kebab joint to get the biggest kebab I've ever had — one of the girls worked at the place and decided to make a special one for the crazy Finnish cyclist. Then a few drinks in a local bar, interesting discussions (Krysztof spoke good English) followed by a visit at his brother's place.

Next morning I was led through the factory to take a shower and treated to a sumptuous breakfast in Krysztof's father's office. Other employees were certainly curious about who on earth had first put up the tent in the front yard and then was accompanied to the executive section of the offices. :) During the morning I also met Krysztof's father, mother and his second brother, and got a kilo of different sausages as the farewell present. We'll keep in touch via email.

Across the Mazurian lake district

Posted: 2006-07-15 14:15:44, Categories: Travel, Poland, Cycling, 646 words (permalink)

Paddling in the MazuriaMy trip has advanced until Warsaw. But before Poland I'll get briefly back to the Kaliningrad part.

We didn't have any major problems, but as we expected, traveling through Kaliningrad was a bit more complicated than crossing the Baltic states. First of all, the citizens of most countries need a visa to enter Russia. In Finland that's easy to get, so it's mainly just an extra cost. There are less accommodation facilities especially in smaller towns than in the surrounding countries, so you may need to plan a bit more to ensure a place to stay. And the hotels may give odd answers when trying to make reservations as we discovered.

Our friends in the Koenig bicycle team had recommended us hotel Deima, which was a bit outside city center but reasonably priced. They had web pages so we enquired about room availability via email. Completely full, was the answer, even when asking separately whether there was room for any of the days during our stay. The hotels which said they had rooms available were very expensive and offered only single rooms. But surprise surprise, when the local cycling team members called Deima on the same day we were arriving, we were immediately offered a three person room, just perfect for us. At the hotel it was obvious that there were plenty of rooms available — we were not the only guests but there weren't many other customers. Interesting way to do business.

When in the region everything was much easier. Our local friends were kind enough to guide us around in the city, but going to places on our own and later traveling to the east wasn't a problem either. English was not usually spoken and our Russian abilities were minimal, but very often we found someone who spoke German. Traffic wasn't bad, especially when choosing slightly smaller roads on the countryside. Definitely an area worth a visit. Final word of warning: reserve time for crossing the Kaliningrad–Poland border. For us it took 2 hours and we were luckier than even any of the Polish cyclists crossing at the same time. Had we come by car, 24 hours might not have been enough.

After crossing the border we were again surrounded by facilities targeted at tourists, increasing further when riding to the Mazurian lake district which is a very popular holiday destination also for Poles. For a Finn who has spent time on the lakes in Eastern Finland the area was maybe not as magnificent as for the locals, but nice nevertheless. We rented a canoe for one day and did a small paddling trip to the nearby shores and small islands.

Another completely different interesting sight which is located in the same area are bunkers of the German headquarters during the Second World War. They are actually divided into two largish groups about 20 kilometers apart from each other, both groups consisting of several dozen bunkers with thick concrete walls. You can go and take a peek to the massive building where Hitler gave his commands and read about the history on the information boards, but more interesting was to see how the bunkers actually disappeared in the forest even though they weren't built underground.

After the lake district we spent three days riding to Warsaw. Mikko and Sami flew back to Finland on Thursday so I'll continue my trip alone again. Warsaw is a nice city with lots to see, but I'll write more about that later.

P.S. I added a picture of a torpedo boat and Dom Sovietov in my Kaliningrad post. I had prepared it already on a usb stick earlier, but the library machine which I used to write the post wasn't so new that it would have a matching port. More photos some time in the future when I've time to select the best ones and prepare picture galleries.

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
(Unless otherwise mentioned in individual photos or other content.)