123 nights : 4,460 miles travelled : Countries visited: 9
“The soul of Poland is indestructible…she will rise again as a rock, which may for a spell be submerged by a tidal wave, but which remains a rock.” Winston Churchill
Speaking to fellow travellers about visiting Poland, we were always warned about the poor condition of the roads. So as we set off on the journey across the border, we took extra care to ensure that everything in and on the cupboards was secured. Kipper tolerates but does not enjoy being rained on by tissue boxes and glasses cases. Walbrzych, the first major town we came to, confirmed our worst fears. There was a bypass but that was closed. The diversion took us into a dead end on a housing estate and our drive through the town centre was a nightmare of roadworks and delays. In between, the surfaces left us all feeling rattled. Luckily we had planned to camp not too far across the border. Bolcow is an attractive town within view and easy reach of the Sudeten mountains, the site was family run and the little field felt like a lovely garden. It also had WIFI which allowed us to pre-book tickets to visit Auschwitz. The memorial museum has received 700,000 visitors so far this year so this was the best way to ensure a day and times that suited us.
We had to wait for nearly a week so we decided to see Wroclaw. We found another site in a back garden but this couldn’t have felt more different. The gates were electronically controlled. There were video cameras and a very scary guard dog. The washing facilities were in a container and the most basic we had seen. We were at the gritty end of the city around 4 km from the centre. Many buildings were very run down and a lot of people in the area took security as seriously as our host. However walking around, we didn’t feel any less safe than in most places in the UK.
We did leave Brian in guarded parking in the city centre. This was right by the Panorama of Raclawicka, a massive 360 degree painting of a 1794 battle in which a Polish peasant army defeated Russian forces intent on partitioning Poland. The story of the battle is told as you walk around it but just as fascinating, is the story of the painting itself. It was commissioned to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle, rather poignantly, as Poland ceased to exist as a sovereign state shortly after the battle. The painting was originally displayed in Lwow until 1944 when it was damaged during an air raid by the Soviet Army. It was stored for safe keeping in Wroclaw and in 1967 an unusual building was built specifically to hang the 120 metre artwork. But the Communist state would not allow it to be displayed until 1985. This was the first time we realised how devastated the country has been by it’s neighbours and just how amazing it is that the Poles have never lost their sense of nationhood.
Wroclow’s market square required a lot of restoration after WWII and this has been done mostly beautifully with only the occasional oddball building. The huge square is one of the largest in Europe and is a lively and attractive place to walk around.
We drive between 1 and 2 hours on travel days so found a stellplatz on the way to Krakow. Gora Swietej Anny is a modest village on a solitary hill in the Silesian plains we had crossed. When we arrived, there were groups having picnics on the lower part of the pleasant field and Graham noted there seemed to be a large number of priests among them. We were told that there was a church on the hill and there would be visitors over the weekend. That didn’t affect us and Kipper had a fun game of ball on the empty field before bed.
We woke to the sound of cars arriving and excited voices greeting each other at 6.00am. The buzz and chatter continued to build for an hour and a half. At 6.30 a brass band started to warm up and somebody tested a microphone, then the liturgical singing began. At 7.00 the clock bells were joined by continuous ringing. We were giggling beyond control by now so Graham got up to put the kettle on. When he looked out we were completely surrounded by cars and coaches.
It emerged we had parked right next to the Lourdes Grotto which meant that when the 2 hour service began at 7.30, we almost didn’t need the loudspeakers that relayed everything. And then at 9.30 the brass bands started and tens of thousands of people headed off down the road. Silence.
Slightly stunned we decided not to move on to Krakow but to stay on and see what was happening. Despite living fairly close to Walsingham, neither of us had ever experienced any kind of pilgrimage other than doing the Guinness tour in Dublin. It emerged that the pilgrims were walking a 6 km calvary circuit of 33 chapels. We explored the village whilst they were gone. It now made sense that there were 5 restaurants in a modest community. A statue of Pope John Paul II looks out over wide views over the plains.
Every inch of road space was lined with vehicles and 90% of gardens had been turned into parking places. Then most bizarrely, we came across a monument and a 30,000 seat amphitheatre on the site of a disused quarry. The monument stands on the site of a mausoleum built by the Third Reich to commemorate German soldiers lost during the 1921 Silesian uprising. It was destroyed at the end of WWII and the monument in turn, commemorates the rebels who had fought to return Silesia to Poland.
The amphitheatre was intended to counter the religious significance of the hill and to become a symbolic site for Silesia as part of Germany. It was not used after it’s inauguration in 1938. What the Nazis did not realise is that they had in fact built a brilliant doggy playground and Kipper had great fun while we sat scratching our heads at their bizarre thinking.
The pilgrims did not return until late afternoon and many stayed on for a candle lit service in the grotto so it was after 10pm before they left for home. The next morning promised a bright early autumn day so we thought we would take a walk along the route the pilgrims had but in reverse. We hadn’t gone far when we saw altar boys sitting around with a line of wicker baskets placed across the pathway.
It seemed so unexpected but then a little further still and we heard singing voices approaching us. A smaller group of pilgrims were following the trail with a short service at each chapel. We stood by, then continued on our way.
The church back in the village was surrounded by stalls selling food and souvenirs. After a warm undulating walk we understood why most of the stalls sold confectionery and ice cream and we felt better qualified to enjoy the festival atmosphere.
We didn’t want to visit Auschwitz but at the same time we did. The second world war was so crucial in shaping the Europe that we are now enjoying and I expected that this historical interest would create some level of detachment during our visit. It did not. Graham expected that he would find it a shocking and horrific place. He did.
I joined a tour with an educator who explained the workings of both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau thoroughly but with great feeling. Whilst it was a humid day, I think the reality of what we were being shown had more to do with feeling hot and dizzy. Graham walked around as an individual at his own pace. The sheer size and scale of the camps was what struck him. For me it was the unimaginable detail of individual lives trying to exist in such circumstances.
We learned that Poles were one of the target populations and afterwards I read the memoirs of a Polish violinist who lost not only most of her family but her home town of Lwow (now Lviv in Ukraine) The era saw Poland partitioned by Germany and Russia as allies and fought over as enemies. It seems remarkable that the people and the nation survived at all.
As our tours were finishing late in the day, we stayed on the car park at Auschwitz I along with two other motorhomes. This is possible with a 24 hour ticket and in a strange way it felt like a privilege to stay on and absorb what we had learnt rather than rush on to the next tourist destination. However we hadn’t realised that goods trains still run near to the site and they operate well into the night. The distinctive sound got mixed in with thoughts of what we had learned in the day. I admit we kept the light on and read for most of the night. We have talked to each other probably more about this as a single element of the trip than any other and the whole visit will stay with us for a very long time.
Krakow is a beautiful city and there is so much to see. It dates back to the 7th century and thankfully largely escaped war damage. Once again we were fortunate with sunny skies but unfortunately the temperature were in excess 30 degrees which did slow us down. This is near the top of our list of cities to return to at a cooler date.
Wawel Hill is topped with both a castle and a cathedral. As with much of Krakow there are some very old buildings in incredibly good condition.
In the fifteenth century Jews were driven out of Krakow and forced to resettle in a part of Kazimierz , at that time a town next to the city. This Jewish quarter attracted many escaping persecution from all over Europe. During the war the Nazis relocated Jews (at that time around 30% of Krakow’s population) to a walled ghetto the other side of the river before they were murdered, as portrayed in Schindler’s List. Today the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz is unlike any other part of the city, with narrower streets dotted with synagogues and cafe bars playing Klezmer music. There is a lively atmosphere with many of the faded exteriors hiding trendy shops and galleries, reminding us of parts of East London. We loved this end of the town; it is quite unlike anywhere else we’ve been on the trip so far.
We had intended to spend two or three more days exploring Krakow but I’m afraid we ran away from the heat and headed to the mountains. After our first bumpy day in Poland, the roads we encountered were better than we expected, especially on this journey. Zakopane is a popular resort in the Tatra Mountains and we stayed in a village just outside town, close to a ski slope being used as a mountain bike venue.
The area has a unique style of architecture (which we forgot to photograph!) and smoked cheese sold from stalls everywhere. Unfortunately we thought they were some form of cake or bread (one track minds) and bought two. Luckily they are so salty I think they will keep for months!
Zakopane was very busy and helpfully it rained for two days, giving us the excuse to sit and absorb our experiences in Poland, those both expected and unexpected and reflect on our admiration for a nation that has survived so much.
M & G xx
Treat of the week: As seen above, we try to buy local sweet treats to have with coffee. I bought some biscuits unlike any before in Lidl thinking they were a Polish speciality. They are in fact, Jaffa Cakes without the jam and the chocolate. Even calling them Affas does not make them enjoyable. So no they are not TOFW. It has to be the memory of looking out of the kitchen window and seeing three nuns crouching in a row between cars having a pee against a wall in Gora Swietej Anny. It was such a casual act and I felt ashamed of watching but not so much that I looked away and I’m afraid I smile every time I remember.