Stelvio Pass – Bucket List Drive

Stelvio Pass – Bucket List Drive

Stelvio Pass, Italy – are you game for the ride of your life that gets your heart pumping, your legs wobbling and your eyes bulging with all the incredible scenery? A ride that takes you from the edge of your seat to the edge of fear – and back again.

We had the Stelvio Pass in our sights from the outset of our ‘life on the road’, as we were driven by living beyond our fear. Although for all sorts of reasons, it didn’t happen. Then we had the chance to drive the Transfagarasan Pass, which was soon followed up by the outstanding TransAlpin Route, both in Romania. And what a thrill they both were. So what could beat that experience, especially when the Transfag has been voted ‘the best’ by UK’s ultimate petrol-heads from the Top Gear team?

After crossing through Austria and having to by-pass the Großglockner route because of the threat of 15cm of white stuff, we found ourselves in the Dolomites in Italy. We’ve seen these majestic peaks, with their angular spikes towering over the Venetian region, many a time, so to actually be driving within them was just magical. With scenery looking akin to a Canadian tourist brochure, we were totally wowed by the whole region. Although yet again the weather dampened our spirits, quite literally – low cloud and drizzle meant that any exploration had to be in our dreams – for now it just wasn’t meant to be.

That was until we woke up to clear blue skies after a fabulous wild spot at Cinque Torri cable car, (46.51894, 12.03837). In a flash we had changed our plans and in a fit of child-like giddiness, decided to hit the road and head to Stelvio Pass. It was only four hours away after all! A piece of cake.

Click on the image below to see some of our favourite pictures…

After plenty of ooh’s and ahh’s around every corner, we wondered how on earth we could beat this drive on the Falzarego and Gardena Passes. Although Stelvio is one of those Bucket List places, especially if you seek memorable and adrenalin pumping experience. So onward we drove, past Bolzano – famous for its capital status of the southern Tyrol region and home to the infamous ‘Iceman’ Ötzi – a Neolithic mummy. Heading north, the valley transforms; its angular construction morphs into a more undulating spectacle, with the mountains crocheted with acres of vineyards and patchwork apple orchards. In September to see the fruit literally dripping from the tiny trees is almost as iconic as the Tuscan grape vineyards further south. Every 100m we found a road-side seller enticing us to stop and take the ‘red apple’. Tempting as it was, it was not food we craved – it was the secret hidden within the heart of those towering giants who beckoned us.

Within only 90 minutes and around 50 miles from Bolzano we soon started to see the famous brown signs that told us all we needed to know – Stelvio was coming!

With thirty thousand devices at the ready to record our adventure, we entered the Stelvio Park. At first we were greeted by pine clad forests, sweeping roads and alpine villages that perch over the ice-blue river, which courses its way from the upper glaciers. Little did we know what lay ahead. Slowly we climbed and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves – until the wiggles began. They were gentle at first and then they became steeper, tighter and more heart-pumping. 48 switchback bends awaited us for our uphill trek and for the first 10 or so it was exhilarating. Yet soon they became more challenging and our strings became tighter and the air a little more blue as expletives of disbelief became common-place. Our fear, for now was being silenced by the adrenaline rush of the adventure.

The picture-postcard perfection filled our windscreen – snow capped mountains looming large in front of us, so close we could almost touch them and feel their chill. For a moment the Dolomites became a distant memory as we became hypnotised by Stelvio’s beauty.  At bend 31 (which at the time we hadn’t actually clocked meant there were still another 30 to go) we stopped for some lunch. With legs a little like jelly after navigating 19, 180 degree bends, we took a breather and enjoyed the scenery.  This spot would have made a fantastic place to overnight with our camper and whilst the view was seriously winning the battle to make us stay, Myles was keen to get towards the top – which, after all was only 5 miles away. What could possibly go wrong?

One thing that motivated us to continue was a German outfit that parked up next to us whilst we were having lunch. A guy poised with his camera stood as if in wait for someone or something – and of all the things we could have anticipated – UNICYCLES would not have been one of them. Really? Yes seriously, two guys were in training and cycled all the way up the top of the Stelvio Pass, all 50 odd switch backs on UNICYCLES. Are they mad?  I couldn’t imagine doing that on a bicycle let alone a Unicycle. All praise to them.

With just a bit of fuel inside our bellies we carried on and it didn’t take very many more bends to reveal the truth behind the mere 5 mile challenge. The stark realisation was that the snake-like bends ahead of us formed the vertical route we HAD to drive up. For a second we did think about turning around, as we had already had a little scrape on the back skirt, although we had come this far – we were not about to stop.

One bend at a time. Me craning my neck to see descending traffic and Myles, with the strength of an ox and steely determination, driving wide; first gear, slowly does it, pathway clear, gentle acceleration – another bend successfully completed.

I’ll be honest, at this point, our experiences of Romania’s Transfagarasan Pass seemed like child’s play – this was so much more of a stretching and challenging drive. Not that we like to compare, although this road was more technical. So, sorry Top Gear boys – we think Stelvio beats Transfag hands down for pure driving skill.

Whilst neither of us said it out loud, I think our fear took over our excitement at this point and whilst it was thrilling, the switchbacks are relentless and they test you as driver and a navigator. I think above all it is the traffic that causes as much of an issue as anything; cyclists, buses, sports cars, motorbikes all buzzing around you and with a rig that is 7.5m long, our need to take a wide course was imperative. Still we did it and we would not have missed the experience – it really made us feel alive.

Reaching our summit spot for the night was both a relief and a highlight as we gazed in disbelief down the valley to see the path we travelled.  It is a vision that made me feel proud; proud of Myles’ skill, proud of my calmness, and proud of sticking with it. It was one of our greatest accomplishments since we took to the road. And the reward was heart-filling. With glaciers at eye-line level, chunky marmots playing in the late afternoon sun and choughs flying past our window, we forgave ourselves for feeling just a little smug. It took an hour or so to calm down, although with a ‘home’ like this we soon relaxed into it.

Check out our video footage of this crazy experience by clicking the video below….

 

Given the ascent, we knew we still had to get down! Would that be as hairy we wondered? To be on the safe side, we decided to head out early, yet despite this there was still plenty of traffic around. I had read that the ‘other side’ was grey and boring in comparison – well take it from me – do not listen to that crazy notion. It is different that is for sure although boring, NO WAY.

The roads are more sweeping and the bends much easier to handle with plenty of places to stop for pictures. As we flirted with the Swiss border, we did, for a moment consider turning right into the Swiss National Park, although we wanted to say that we had ‘done’ Stelvio, in all its glory. We were treated to the most amazing waterfalls, the sight of marmots up close and tunnels that were, at times, just a little challenging. We loved the trip down and for us both it was a much more relaxed affair, where we could enjoy the scenery without such an intense feeling. After an hour we found ourselves in Bormio and we were soon on our way towards to the Italian lakes. And whilst our experience of Stelvio was now officially complete, the van was intact, as were our nerves, I felt just a little sad. I was sad because Stelvio is an onslaught of the senses and with 60 or so switchbacks, often our need to concentrate overtook our ability to absorb our surroundings. So I would love to do it again to really soak up the experience.  Still we have done it – I’m so thrilled that we did it and would definitely recommend it.

Here are some facts and tips for making your Stelvio memorable, for all the right reasons.

Did you know…

  • The Stelvio Pass is almost 200 years old?
  • It was constructed by an Austrian Emperor who wanted to join the valley to his homeland.
  • It is pretty much unchanged since that time.
  • It reaches over 2,700m high and is 31 miles long – 49km.
  • There are around 60 hairpin bends and 6 tunnels (although we lost count of the switchbacks after 20 as we were concentrating too much.)
  • For 2 days at the end of August/beginning of September the route is closed to the public, allowing only cyclist to use the road. Do check the exact dates before heading this way.
  • Even Sterling Moss, the greatest driver in the world, got into difficulties’ whilst travelling Stelvio.
  • Stelvio may not be the most dangerous, although it is the highest paved road in the Eastern Alps.
  • Unlike the Großglockner Pass in Austria’s Tyrol mountains, there is no toll road fee. Enjoy it free of charge – except for the energy you will expend in concentration and the petrol you will consume!

 

Tips for making your own Bucket List trip…

  • We suggest to be kind to your breaks that you do the route from the northern edge from Balzano south to Bormio. It is far easier to navigate the switchbacks uphill.
  • Whilst the route is open from May to September, always check the weather before undertaking the journey as unseasonal conditions can affect the area.
  • The 31 miles will take you around 3 hours to negotiate, so time it right if you need to do it in one day.
  • We recommend if travelling with a camper that you take two days and find one of the amazing wild spots to stay overnight. The light of the sunset and sunrise is magical.
  • Avoid the road during the high season; July and August, especially the  weekends as the volume of traffic will undoubtedly impact on the whole experience.
  • Travel early or late if you want to minimise the traffic element of your drive. Whilst there are still plenty of people on the road, we certainly encountered less buses in the morning run.
  • For more information check this website out.
  • It might sound strange, although it is worth checking your brake pads especially if you are travelling in a camper and intend to go south to north from Bormio. No harm in checking all is well. You do not want to be half way down and finding your pads are thinning.
  • If you are taking a camper whilst small buses do bomb up and down, we agreed that anything over 8m would be more of a stretch on this road and if you have a trailer, we suggest finding a campsite and leaving it behind.

We totally loved this road, as we look back. Whilst we were in the moment it was one of the most difficult drives we have ever done, the thrill and aliveness you feel whilst doing it make it completely worth it.  Safe travels for your bucket list ride.

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Camping Mauterndorf, Austria

Camping Mauterndorf, Austria

Camping Mauterndorf – Gets a Five Star review from us! And it’s not often we can say that. As you know we love to wild camp and be in the heart of what Mother Nature gifted to us. Although from time to time we need some campsite love so we can catch up with all our domestic chores.  And as we pass through Austria after our road-trip through Poland and Slovakia we spotted the Großglockener Pass, which is something we’ve wanted to do since we hit the road in March 2016. A half way point happened to be Camping Mauterndorf.

And boy what a treat. It is an ACSI site so out of season you pay just €19 per night plus tourist tax. And for that you get the pleasure of top quality facilities, cheap washing machines for €3, a Wellness Suite with sauna, steam-room, solarium and special showers. The pitches are a great size and totally surrounded by mountains from all angles and the staff here too are helpful and efficient. There is nothing that is too much trouble.

 

 

One of the greatest benefits of this site though is that for the duration of your stay you get a LungauCard which entitles you to a series of free and discounted activities within the area. So we took the Großeckbahn Cable Car, which normal price would set you back €16 per person for a return journey – with your card you get a one-time free trip. Panoramic views await you at the top with hikes galore and Austrian hospitality at its best.

This is a fabulous place to stay and we can’t recommend it highly enough. Vielen dank Camping Mauterndorf.  You can check them out by clicking on their website here. Camping Mauterndorf. Their co-ordinates are 47.14289, 13.6646.

 

Check out our video of the campsite and the mountain area, which is free to explore….

 

Where can you find them?

 47.14289, 13.6646

 

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A brief encounter with Bratislava

A brief encounter with Bratislava

Bratislava – where in the world are we? Go on take a couple of guesses! In fact let’s turn question on its head. What is the capital of Slovakia? Until three weeks ago when we first entered this little known to us country, I think if either of these questions had come up in a Quiz I would probably have failed dismally. When it comes to Geography getting an A’ Level doesn’t really guarantee you knowledge about this sort of detail and, given when I was at school Slovakia didn’t even exist at the time, then perhaps I could be forgiven.

Having arrived in this lovely capital after an all too brief encounter with Slovakia, we wondered whether it would be the icing on the cake to our trip or a damp squib. In fairness it was neither, thanks to a bout of gastric flu which had both of us bed-bound over the course of 48hrs. So if we’re honest the enthusiasm to do anything more than just a perfunctory tour was firmly tucked up under the duvet.  Still I felt compelled to go visit – I think this is one of the few downsides to travel writing; when you’re blessed with being in a new place, it feels important and necessary to comment on your experiences. No bad thing, yet it is this passion that drove me to leave my beloved in bed and go experience Bratislava, for my very own Brief Encounter. And I’m glad I did as it was very pleasant.

 

Let’s start with an atmospheric build up to get you in the mood. Picture the grey-blue waters of the mighty Danube river, which crosses through four country capitals en route to its Romanian Delta and Black Sea homecoming. A river that buzzes with long, square hotel boats that cruise its fast flowing waters with the odd jet-ski braving its engine powers against its forceful flow. Riverbanks that equally vibrate with a throng of people as they sit on make-shift, artificial beaches, play volleyball and promenade with their kids along Europe’s second longest river after the Volga.

Add to that, the vision of a fusion of ancient and modern culture as you are welcomed into the city’s beating heart by a UFO bridge that looks like something out of a Star Trek movie, with the backdrop of a castle placed atop of a hill as if put there by a child making a LEGO model. That really messes with your mind.

Then finally throw in for good measure that this 18th century city stands at the cusp of two other countries; Hungary and Austria – the only national capital to border two sovereign states. This creates a multi-cultural feel to this compact and bijou-style capital that has charm, architecture and a myriad of alleyways that set to intrigue the visitor as we look to master the secrets of this place. Click on the Gallery below for some more images.

 

Tour around Bratislava

First things first. I love photography and so you will often find me guided around a city, or any place we visit come to think of it, for its photogenic quality perhaps rather than its factual and historical characteristics.  And so this is what I present to you today – photographer’s insight into Bratislava.

Taking myself from our parking spot for the night, which was right on the Danube river edge, it was just a short walk across the Stary most bridge towards the hub of the city. My first image of modern Bratislava caught my eye at that moment. Looking down the Danube with the view of Apollo bridge in the distance, the magnificent body of water edged by office blocks and the life that buzzed in, through and around it. Whilst not necessarily pretty as a picture, they do represent modern city life. Whilst the old town sector always capture my imagination more powerfully, I do love these abstract images of city life.

My next port of call, was to seek out Bratislava’s answer to the latest global trend of Umbrella Art. Streets all around the world started to follow Portugal’s lead three years ago when each July they celebrate the Ágitagueda art festival with a display of coloured umbrellas. We saw our first display at Rupea Castle in Romania and so when I caught a glimpse of Bratislava’s very own offering, it was very much on my radar.

Inspired by the beautiful cross-stitch embroidery from Vajnor’s surroundings and the paintings of Ľudovít Fulla, Bratislava makes its first 2018 appearance onto the Umbrella Art stage and can be seen at Nedbalka Street from 30 June until 30 September.  Now I’ll be honest that it didn’t wow me as some of the images I’ve seen around the world of similar exhibits and in truth I don’t think the museum who sponsored it did it any favours with having scaffolding up, although this small exhibition sort of summed up Bratislava for me. Small, discrete, understated and, just cute.

 

The Architecture

I’m not a great historian nor do I have a great fancy for museums, although my photographer’s eye does seriously appreciate architecture and this is something that Bratislava has in bucketloads. In fact between its medieval, baroque and gothic designs, you will have neck-ache with the constant gazing to the skies as you, like me search out the real truth of a city landscape. Bratislava has a good range of buildings that give a historical backbone to the city; Michael’s Gate is the only building preserved from the medieval fortifications and stands as a strong iconic symbol to this city, palaces appear on almost every street and churches take their lofty position as they guard the city’s spiritual well-being.

And aside of the Old Town square which is full of life and vibrance from its café bars and fountains to its robust and ancient buildings, there are a multitude of alleyways that just call you to wander. And the beauty is that you never get lost.  Click on the Gallery below for some more images.

Bratislava’s Art

It’s always great to see how a city interprets art – we obviously see so much of it etched into the fabric of its buildings, although the type of art I’m talking about are the statue, monument and paintings type of art. I didn’t find a huge amount in fairness, although Bratislava has huge competition with Poland’s Wrocław – now they seriously know how to do art. Although there were a couple of elements to reveal to the curious tourist and Instagramer.

  • I found a bronze statue of Napoleon soldier in the Old Town square. Legend has it when Napoleon’s army was in the city in 1805 that Hubert decided to stay after he fell in love with a local and became a wine producer.
  • Second is Cumil – which is translated as ‘Communist era worker who is simply not bothered’, created by Viktor Hulík in 1997. Touch the man’s head and make a wish – it is said to come true.
  • This wall art was hard to miss on the outer edges of the Old Town.
  • And what city would be complete if it wasn’t for its musicians. These guys were something else –  their passion written into the lines on their faces.

Bratislava’s Old Town

I’m not, if I’m really honest, a city girl. As an introvert traveller the frenetic energy of the crowds, the tourist traps and the traffic are just too much for me to bear – well for too long anyway. So you’ll only ever find us in a city, or even a town come to think of it, for half a day. That’s normally enough for us to soak up the feel of a place. Then we retreat back into the heart of the countryside to recharge our batteries.

That said I am a bit partial to an Old Town. They capture the essence of history, the locals who lived there in a bygone era and, I think they stand as a testimony to the scars, battles and victories. I also love the photogenic quality they offer me to see the people interacting around the city’s heart.

Bratislava’s Old Town is based around its main square – Hlavné Námestie and where you find its Japanese Embassy, City museum, Old Town Hall and of course an obligatory fountain with pigeons. This has a lovely feel to it and from here the town has arterial veins that spur off in all directions, enticing you to follow. Alleyways that intrigue, streets that implore your gaze and archways that just have to be walked through. Of course you could just follow one of the many walking tours although that’s not so fun.  Here’s some of the images I found that I think sum up the soul of Bratislava. Click on the Gallery below for some more images.

Bratislava’s Bold and Old

I just love contrasts that the world presents to the willing viewer – for me they defy logic and structure. And in a world that often demands conformity I love that contrasts stick a right royal two fingers up to that notion. Bratislava I thought had plenty of contrast weaving throughout its streets. In particular I loved how its magnificent castle holds its rightful place overlooking its kingdom, proud and strong. And right opposite it in direct contrast you have the most boldly designed bridge I have ever seen. The UFO Bridge seriously competes for centre stage on the Bratislava vista.

Now the castle is a thing of beauty although at this point in my tour, my energy had run out to visit inside, so I admired from below like so many of its past subjects. Heading back across the bridge of many names was my final goal. This is a pretty unique bridge; it is the 7th largest hanging bridge in the world and its top is shaped like a space ship, hence its UFO label – you can even eat up there, which must be a terrific experience. With a 45 second lift ride up to the Observation Deck where, after parting with €7.40, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the city and beyond – on a clear day. The bridge is also significant as a memorial to the Slovakian Uprising of 1944, hence its secondary name the most SNP bridge or New Bridge if that is too much of a mouthful.  It is a serious work of art and definitely worth putting on your Bratislava itinerary.

On a return trip to the city four days later with a friend, we had the chance to look around the castle grounds and it is seriously beautiful and the views spectacular.

Beyond Bratislava

It’s easy to stay enslaved to a city’s beauty and be captured within its walls never seeing outside its confines. And yet there is so much more to see within such easy striking distance. For one, stretching north you have the Small Carpathian mountains for hiking pleasure. You have the many vineyards that gently cling to the rolling hills to the east, west Austria’s Vienna calls, no more than an hour drive and  a little bit further on you can reach the charismatic Budapest in Hungary. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city that has such a great central hub for visiting other places.

Although my final sharing for today is not quite that far afield – just a mere 12km away up the Danube towards the Austrian border. Devín and its castle are definitely worth a detour. At the confluence of the Morava and Danube river, a stronghold settlement has been here for over two centuries and from 13th century the castle began its evolution. Although destroyed by Napoleon, its remains have become a National Cultural Monument and for €5 you are able to enter the castle grounds to learn about its yesteryear tale.

Walking around the area is beautiful although it has a cloak of darkness veiled around it. You will see memorial stones and monuments that have been erected to commemorate those who died during the Cold War. The Iron Curtain was drawn right on the edge of the Danube riverbank in-front of the castle and it is said that over 400 people died trying to cross it in a bid for freedom on Austria’s western shores. These tributes serve as a cold reminder of times when persecution and dominance still had not been healed from the horrors of WW2. Click on the Gallery below for some more images.

Top Tips for Bratislava

Based on our two trips, whilst my first impression was I am sure jaded by my virus, my return journey nailed my adoration of Bratislava. So based on our experiences, here are our top tips for making the most of the city.

  • If you can visit on a Sunday, the crowds will be significantly reduced and you will have more space to explore.
  • Visit the Castle grounds, which are free of charge – so if you’re on a budget then this is a fabulous way to not only see the whole cityscape, you also get a peak into the grandeur of the grounds.
  • Do allow at least half-a-day, as by the time you have wondered, visited the castle, had a coffee/beer and visited a museum or two, you will need that time to really feel the city’s heart-beat.
  • Parking in the city is tricky, so head over to the opposite side of the river and park in the free parking area by the Stary Most Bridge.
  • Walk over the Stary Most bridge through the town and then back across the UFO bridge for a really good all round view of the city.
  • Stop at one of the many cafés and bars; first it’s incredibly cheap and secondly it’s great to just watch the world go by and feel the city’s pulse.
  • Do buy one a Gelato ice-cream – they are something else.
  • Take your phone-charger cables as they have just installed charging benches along the Promenade by the old town. So if you have been spending too much time on Social Media and run out of juice, why not take a load off and take a charge.
  • Why not take a hydrofoil to Vienna, for €40-70 and just 80 minutes of your time, you get to see the Danube in all its beauty and get to see two cities for the price of one. How’s that for a super travel experience? Check out up to date prices here.

 

And so there is your photographic journey through Bratislava, seen through my eyes and my lens. It may not be a weekend break type of place, although it certainly deserves a visit en route to Budapest or Vienna. I enjoyed what I saw and thought that a half-day excursion was well worth its value. I hope you enjoyed the ride too.

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Poland Interactive Map

Poland Interactive Map

So after seven weeks on the road in Poland, we are sat here on our last night thinking both forwards and back at the route we have covered and the adventures we are about to have in Slovakia.  And as we put the final touches to our Poland Interactive Route Map it seems incredible to see the miles we have covered and the incredible experiences we have had.

To celebrate our final evening here, we had the romantic notion of going out to a local Polish restaurant to spend the rest of our Złoty and soak up the Zakopane mountain culture. Although an 8.5km hike up in the Tatra National Park climbing up to 1300m has well and truly done us in. Everything aches although what a great finished to a superb Poland Road Trip.

On 16th June we entered Poland, unsure what to expect and yet 55 days later we feel privileged to have had such amazing experiences  and to have learnt so much about this unassuming land. We hope that the blogs we have written along the way, which you can access at the end of this page and our Poland Interactive Route Map help inspire you to come here at some point.

We have so much more to explore here as you’ll see from our Map, although that’s for another time. Until then, Thank You Poland, we have had a memorable trip and we will never forget!  Click on the Interactive Map below for all our highlights.

 

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10 Day Itinerary for Krakow, Poland.
Poland Road Trip – Part 2

Poland Road Trip – Part 2

Poland’s depth and character unfold the longer you stay; each week grabbing hold of your heart just a little bit more. In Part 1 of our Road-Trip, there is no doubting that we uncovered some seriously unique and beautiful sights and we felt instantly connected. Although as the weeks have gone by, little bit by little bit, Poland has secured its place both in our hearts and on our Top 5 List of Most Memorable Places. I know it’s really easy to say, given the ‘recency factor’, although I just have the feeling that Poland will remain under our skin for a long while to come. Let’s see if we can transfer some of this magic through our words, pictures and videos. Don’t forget that our full documentary of our Poland trip is now available for FREE download – check it out here.

Here is our interactive map of our entire route through Poland.

Warsaw – city of scars and rebirth

After the disappointment of Łodz we were really hoping Warsaw would match our eager expectations. I do recognise that after so many cities in the last two and a half years, that there is some danger of being blasé, although we genuinely seek the unique characters of each place we visit and Warsaw was no different. Sometimes we do get travel fatigue and we have learnt now to stop, ground ourselves for a day or two before then exploring some more. And this was our calling as we approached Warsaw and we found the perfect place about 8 miles to the west of the city at Camping Kaputy.

Duly rested, I awoke with the same eager anticipation I feel after being stationary for awhile. A new city, new secrets to discover and new tales to share. With my camera fully charged we headed into The Smoke and found a fabulous secure parking area right underneath the Old Town, which for 6PLN per hour or 124PLN for 24hrs, was just perfect and so easy to access. (52.25011, 21.01568) Within five minutes we were in the hub of the Market Square, which like Wrocław has so much atmosphere and charm. With café bars hugging the outer edges and rainbow coloured facias looking down on the scene like parental giants, the Rynek was delightful and no crowds! My perfect scenario.

Armed with leaflets from the Tourist Info centre, we made a bee-line for all the iconic highlights on our Map, letting them guide us like Pied Piper mice. The Stare Miastro (Old Town in Polish) was the main course to our starter at the Rynek, and boy were we in for a feast – for the eyes and the soul. A Royal Castle that at 11.15am each day plays out a bugle call to the waiting crowds, Chopin playing benches, a panorama tower and monuments everywhere. It was one of those experiences where we felt like we needed to turn in circles to take it all in.

And if this was the main course, what about dessert? Well it would not disappoint as we headed down a road that looked akin to the Champs Élysées offering yet more magnificent architecture, palaces and grand hotels. We passed through the park with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and eventually to the very efficient Metro service that would take us straight to the Uprising Museum. It was here that our real education of Warsaw’s dark history during WW2 unfolded. We got a real sense of the tragedy and evil that smothered the city. Like Wrocław, the same destruction razed the city to the ground and their subsequent reconstruction is secondly only to the rebuilding of their spirits. The horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the memorials to those who perished stationed around this now thriving city just asserts how human endeavour can never been destroyed.

Warsaw is definitely worthy of a day trip, and longer if you can, as there is so much to take in – slowly. Enjoy it. We did.  Check out our video below.

Collage of Warsaw highlights

Treblinka – WW2 Extermination Camp

Poland’s history is one that sets your blood boiling at the sheer brutality of humankind against its fellow neighbours. Our school education really doesn’t prepare you for what Poland will teach you. They are tough lessons, although necessary ones, if we as a generation are going to protect the sanctity of all that is good in the world and ensure that human compassion is never again lost to power and corruption. Our visit to Treblinka was not the first memorial experience. Over the last couple of years we have been slowly educating ourselves to the horror of our forefathers and paying our respects at the memorials across Europe.

Treblinka was the most powerful experience, second only to Birkenau. We had the place to ourselves as we had stopped overnight in the car park and the silence was palpable. Although there are only camp remains here, the memorial stones are thought-provoking and the long walk along the Black Path was evocative. There is no bird song and nature has just decreed that no life shall blossom here except for hardy breeds. I shall always hold Treblinka in my heart and pay respects to those millions who were brought here to work and die. Read more about this moving experience on our blog.

Lublin – Old Town loveliness

Like many of its Polish family, Lublin has an Old Town that has charm, tales to regale you and horror stories. Its castle in its past life became a prison during the WW2 for over 40,000 prisoners, most of whom were murdered. This theme continued post-war when the Soviets took over the royal walls, holding over 30,000 prisoners captive, many of whom were from the Freedom and Independence Association. The castle was a scene of death by torture, appalling conditions or execution.  There is a lot of work being done in the town, so it didn’t appeal hugely, although inside the walls, it was delightful, colourful and definitely worth a short visit. There was a great parking area just underneath the Old Town walls and only 3PLN for an unlimited time. So you can park overnight here too – although probably a bit noisy. (51.24815, 22.57312).

Kazimierz Dołny – gorges and Wailing Wall memorials

Kazimierz is a super little town on the River Wisła in Poland’s central region, just west of Lublin. A timeless collection of traditional Polish homes, interspersed with the inevitable tourist tat sheds that try to capture some income and who can blame them? There are castle ruins here, beautiful churches, a Tree Root Gorge, a Wailing Wall memorial to the Jewish population and three crosses honouring the victims of the plague outbreak in 18th Century.  There is plenty to do here that’s for sure.

The Cemetery was created in 1851 on land donated by the town. Although when WW2 hit the country the Nazi’s tore down the headstones and used them for paving leading up to the Gestapo buildings. Then in the 1980’s it was decided to use the salvaged stones to commemorate the dead by building a Wailing Wall. The split symbolises the division of Male and Female graves. Some tombs that were in tact have been resurrected behind and in front of the wall. It is a very serene place to visit and to see Jewish ancestry being honoured in this way.

The Tree Root Gorge is a delightful 15 minute walk through a cutting in the forest, where nature (and perhaps a little bit of human intervention, says the cynic in me) has carved a shallow gorge revealing tree roots that are precariously hanging onto the earth. There’s parking along the road to the Gorge, which cost between 5-25PLN depending on the size of your vehicle. It’s certainly a unique site, if not a little small.

Tree Root Gorge Kazimierz Dolny
Wailing Wall cemetery, Kazimierz Dolny

Sandomierz – Royal City

Sandomierz is one of Poland’s most important and oldest cities. Whilst there is some evidence of dwellers here back in 5000BC, the main settlement is thought to date back to the Middle Ages.  And tucked away in the middle of nowhere it is hard to understand its significance. Yet it stands proud on an escarpment with views across the entire valley. Together with Wrocław and Kraków, Sandomierz Castle was given royal status and being at the geographical points of three regions and on important trade routes, Sandomierz’s history was sealed. Although it’s been a tough old battle for them and not for the reasons that you might presume. This time it is not just WW2 we can caste a judgemental eye towards. This city came under the siege of the Lithuanians in 14th century, the Swedes had a go in 16th Century, a plague devastated the population in 1800 and World War 1 became their nemesis. So how is this town is still standing after all this? Goodness only knows, although the buildings still hold their dominance and with one of the best preserved town gates in Poland, Sandomierz deserves a visit.

We stayed at Camping Browarny, (50.68009, 21.7548) which is perfectly placed at the foot of the town’s escarpment and only five minutes from the town walls. And all for the price of £16 per night for a motorhome, two peeps and electricity – what a bargain.

Collage of Sandomierz, Poland

Zalipie – The Painted Cottages

In 19th Century, traditional Polish cottages had cooking stoves that would puff out smoke, flooding the house with soot. So the ladies of the house would mask their rooms with ornamental paintings using lime whitewash, black soot and beige clay. This practice then evolved in the 20th Century into something more colourful, a tradition that is still honoured to this day, giving it a real folklore feel to it. Wandering around this real open air museum, is just captivating. The newer houses haven’t followed the tradition, although there are enough of the original cottages that still have the paintings around their doors, windows, fences, bridges, wells, kennels and farm buildings. It is simply charming and there are just so few tourists here. So if you want something unique that offers you a real taste of rural Poland, come here. Just fifty miles north-east from Kraków, definitely worth a little diversion.  We stopped overnight behind the museum, in front of the pre-school, with the proprietor’s permission. (50.23595, 20.8623)

Kraków and its vicinity

Kraków, Poland’s ancient capital, stands proudly amongst it city competitors, receiving probably more visitors per year than its rivals. It is a Mecca for tourists who flock from all over the world to sample its elegant Rynek – Market Square, drink beer in its Barbican Street or visit the many museums that tell tales of its wartime role and hold the secret behind why Kraków was not decimated like its neighbouring cities of Wrocław, Warsaw and Łodz.

A visit to Poland’s famous daughter is however not just a city tour – there is so much more to see in and around the area. We have a dedicated 10 Day Itinerary to share with all the detail, although here’s the highlights….

  • OświęcimAuschwitz-Birkenau Camps, within 1 hour of Kraków that can be done in a day. Do Birkenau for a raw and reflective exposure to the Death Camp with few crowds and no queues. Go to Auschwitz for an excellent museum and storytelling portrayal of life and death in the infamous camp. Expect queues and crowds though unless you go very early or very late.
  • Wieliczka – Kraków’s famous Salt-mines just 30 minutes south of the city so very easy to get to. Again our suggestion is go early or late as the queues can be pretty bad. It has an excellent 2.5hr tour that takes you into an underground world that Disney himself could never have conjured up.
  • Zalipie – As I’ve already mentioned is really worth a visit for the day. It may be a 90 minute drive although definitely worth the excursion to see a real taste of a traditional Polish village and living and breathing folklore.
  • Eagle’s Nest Route – following the 794 north from Kraków you will be able to follow the route of the Eagle’s Nest, a series of 44 castles and watchtowers all with different characters and stories to tell, that sit proudly in the land of the Polish Juras. It is a beautiful region and a lovely road to follow north towards Częstochowa.
  • Poland’s Sahara Desert – Błędowka Sands is perhaps not quite what you imagine when you think of the Sahara, although it is certainly a unique landscape and for that reason alone it needs to be seen and appreciated. It is a man-made area that dates back hundreds of years when it was deforested and the water table dropped so low that it could no longer sustain life. Go see it, just to say you’ve been!

So a visit to Kraków is so much more than a city-break. Come and explore the area for its rich diversity, haunting history and unique earth-scapes.

Collage of Krakow's gems

Wooden Church Route of Małopolska

So many tourist brochures applaud the merits of Kraków and Zakopane in this rich southern region of Poland, although in so doing miss a pretty treat. This Małopolksa county has abundant pickings no more so than the Route of the Wooden Churches. A collection of 74 wooden beauties that were built between 15th-18th Century. Made, inside and out in wood, they stand as a testimony to the art of medieval craftmanship whilst they also display defiance against nature’s wrath. Eight of these churches have been brought under the UNESCO banner, showing off the best of these magnificent buildings.  Almost every village you drive through in this region will have its own wooden beauty, even tiny hamlets.  In addition, you have the advantage of being in the foothills of the Tatra mountains and so the whole landscape begins to alter. More undulating scenery opens up, reservoirs and rivers course their way from the mountains towards the coast. It’s a lovely environment that needs to be on your radar for a bit of real Poland.

Our route through the Wooden Churches of Małopolska
Wooden Churches of Małopolska

Poland’s Alps – Tatra Mountains

Home to bears, wolves and lynx to name a few, the Tatra’s are Poland’s highest mountains and they provide a deep connection with Slovakia just across the border. Towering peaks with aggressive looking jagged edges, the Tatras form part of the Carpathian Mountains, a range that arcs from Romania around to Czech Republic. With peaks in the Tatras reaching 2,400m, these are giants with stature, beauty and challenge.

Skiing, hiking and cycling are big in this region and in fact the Polish equivalent of Tour de France passes through the region in August every year. Tour de Pologne has been sporadic since 1928 although from 1952 it has become an annual event which now appears on the UCI Pro-Tour.

Two notable places that appear on The Motoroamer’s POI map for this area are; Dunajec in the Pieniny National Park. Leaving behind the wooden church icons, you enter a curvaceous world that would look at home in the bosom of Switzerland. This is rural Poland at its best with farmsteads being the only dwellings we often saw for miles, perhaps just the odd hamlet dotted here and there – oh and the obligatory elegant church. Aside of this, we were offered a range of treats for our eyes and the outdoor pursuits devil within us. Reservoirs, 14th century castles and dramatic limestone gorges that have been carved by the river Dunajec creating mild white waters for  theeager kayaker or may be a more gentle coursing on a 19th century raft that offers to carry you down river for 10 miles through this incredible gorge. Or why not cycle it instead and see life in a completely way?

The second port of call would need to be Zakopane – a Alpine-esque town in the most southern part of Poland bordering Slovakia. It is known as the Winter Capital of Poland although I think August might have something to say about this. Given the number of people who flock to this winter wonderland resort in the summer, I am sure that Zakopane revels in its all-year-round appeal. I am in no doubt that beneath the blanket of crowds and the gauntlet of tourist tat huts that line every mountain attraction, this is a delightful place. After all who could not love the mountain backdrop, wooden Alpine houses and outdoor lifestyle?  Zakopane is the official gateway to the Tatra National Park, offering hiking valleys, cable-cars and secret lakes hidden amongst the mountain peaks. Although if you come here, plan your trip carefully so you can breathe in the lovely mountain air and not be affected by the inevitable congestion that the holiday season brings.

Sadly at the end of our Poland Road Trip, Zakopane didn’t leave us on a high. We recognise that not all travel can be iconically beautiful and memorable and that actually all faces of travel need to be experienced; and we have left Poland feeling that Zakopane is not indicative of Polish culture. We would come back to explore whether we can see beyond the crowds; may be in May/June or September.

Dunajec Castle, Pieniny National Park, Poland
Dunajec Castle and the Motoroamers
Collage of Zakopane's best bits

Poland Reflections

So as we sit here waiting for one of the infamous mountain summer storms to pass so we can head south, we reflect back on our road-trip through Poland. From 16 June when we first set foot on this fair land with a sense of uncertainty and curiosity, around each corner we have been more and more captivated by this Central European gem. Conspicuous by its absence on the European stage, Poland’s progressive economy is clear to see everywhere. From the bulk order of pavement bricks that they have surely got a mountain of hidden somewhere in the hinterland, to the rural country that relies on its simplicity and earthly values to secure a happy life. From rebuilt cities that defy enemies’ domination, to memorials that ask – no beg for us to learn from the past and never again repeat the atrocities of war. From lakes, gorges, rivers, street art, geological mysteries, underground worlds, castles and rolling countryside – we have been taken on a rollercoaster ride of experiences that have left our emotions wrung out like lettuce leaves. Although Poland has given us one of the most rich, meaningful and memorable trips that will serve us with reminders of its contrasts for years to come.

We had so few expectations because, quite honestly Poland had never been on our radar and in fact was only ever intended as a ‘pass through’ country en route to Lithuania. Although what a surprise and a delight Poland has been and I will always look so fondly on our experiences here. What would we say to entice others to Poland?

 

Come to an unassuming land, that has scars deeper than the ocean and a spirit taller than any mountain, with a character that reaches right into your heart. A rainbow of colours seeps from every aspect of life, asserting their place in a modern world, which is so removed from the grey communism that sought to repress them. Poland calls to be put on the map, demands to be respected and asks for us to share in its glorious and complex culture. 

 

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