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. Remember the full documentary of our Poland trip will soon be available in eBook format, so keep your eyes open for that.

Route Map Part 2 - Poland Road Trip
Krakow Road Trip map

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. 

Other tales from our Poland Road-trip that you might enjoy:

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10 Day Kraków Itinerary

10 Day Kraków Itinerary

Kraków, capital of Poland’s southern-most region Małopolska, is so much more than a city; it’s a diverse experience that will take you to the edge of your emotions on a rollercoaster journey. Pay your Ticketmaster his fee and then let the wheels take you on the highs of Kraków’s Market Square and Barbican to the up-side-down emotions of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And I promise, you will return home a different person. Whilst it might be tempting to consider a ‘quick city break’ of Kraków as it is without doubt a Bucket List destination, ‘quick’ will never do this region justice.

Come with us and we’ll show you around and hopefully tempt you to have an experience of a lifetime and not just a holiday. So if you’re ready, buckle up, settle yourself down and let’s go….

As a starting point, why not check out our interactive map, showing you the Five Kraków Regional Highlights.

 

 

2-3 Days in Kraków City

They say that Kraków is one of Europe’s prettiest cities and there’s no doubting its beauty, historical prowess and tourist attractions. Although with this accolade comes the inevitable over-tourism that plagues so many of our beautiful landscapes around the world and that we now come to expect of our global ‘best destinations’. And Kraków is no different. So be mindful of this as you set your itinerary.  Whether you love photography, religion, World War history or ancient history, Kraków has it all.

To fit it all into one day though is a tough call. We visited in two half-days and did a self-guided tour. Our first visit was walking through the park towards Wawel Castle and then into the Rynek – Market Square, where we soaked up the atmosphere with a beer watching the street entertainers and listening to the hourly bugle call from the Cathedral Tower. The second trip was into Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter.  For us, we liked this bit the least and whilst from a historical view point it has an important legacy, it felt much darker, grey and actually we didn’t enjoy the vibe there at all. So we had lunch and took off back into the Old Town where we found new streets; one of which was the Barbican – which is absolutely delightful.  The old city defence walls create a hub of activity, traditionally dressed musicians and artisans selling their artwork, which gave such a lovely feel to the place.

Of course the danger with self-guided tours is that you end up missing some of the most charming back streets. So in hindsight, taking the Hop-on, Hop-off bus is a better option and is very reasonable; for 24hrs you can have a standard bus tour (which unlike other cities has just one route) for just under £14 or you can choose a bus and boat combo for under £23. It’s always lovely to see a city from a river view.  The beauty of the bus option is that you can reach both the Kosciuszki Mound, which is a couple of miles to the west of the city and tough to walk to, and you cross over the river to reach Schindler’s Museum.  You can buy your tickets on-line or at the pick up destinations on the day.  Check out their website here.

There are other ways of seeing the city either by horse-drawn carriages with their elegantly dressed horses and riders which charge 400PLN per hour for a group – so works about about £20 per person if there is a party of four. Or you could take an electric cart which again charges per group of up to eight people and prices start from 210PLN for 30 minutes (equates to around £42 for the group).  This is a great website where you can check out all the current City Tour prices, whichever mode of transport you choose.

Just a word of caution; in high season you will need to book tickets in advance for the Underground City in the Rynek, which costs 21PLN per person (about £4.20) and Schindler’s Museum, which costs 24PLN person (about £4.80) – so plan ahead to avoid disappointment.  Check out the online booking here. 

1 Day visit to Salt Mines – Wieliczka

You can’t visit Kraków without taking a trip out of town into the suburbs to catch a glimpse of one of the most unique worlds you may ever see.  An underground city that is buried deep beneath the surface of the earth – over 327m to be exact.  Wielisczka Salt-mines, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978, is a must see whilst you are in Kraków. Only 20 minutes away, you can experience 2 hours of the most fascinating history and sights that honours ten generations of Polish miners.

The mines hold over 700 years of history and as you join your group of 30 people you enter into the belly of this darkened salt oasis, climbing down 350 steps. Once at the bottom which in fact is only level 1 of 9, you find there are no suffocating tunnels to crawl through, instead you will be wowed by the 2 miles of marble-like walls and floors that would look at home in any grand Palace. Salt, the root of all financial exchange and healing properties became a sought after commodity and back in the day it was privilege to work in this world of darkness underneath the surface.  Although these men didn’t just hack these saline walls for salt extraction. No, they displayed their artistic talents by carving caverns, chapels and a Cathedral to allow their sub-terrean existence to feel as normal as possible.

The Salt-mines are an exhibition of life, art, history and a monument to a Polish way of life that has become unique on a global scale. Marvel at the salt chandeliers, the Biblical rock carvings, an alter in the Cathedral and a larger than life sculpture of Pope John Paul II. Around each corner of the labyrinth of tunnels, your breath will be stripped from you for a moment as your eyes feast on the vision in front of you; the colours, the textures and the secret world that is home to its very own saline lakes that are as green as any emerald. We were struck by the enormity of this underground world that tourists only see 1% of on this tour. Now that is mind-blowing given that our tour was well over 2 hours long.

Although you can book your tickets on-line if you know the specific day on which you want to visit, you can also just turn up and queue as long as you have the patience of a saint. Bear in mind that over the course of a year, 1 million visitors pass through this unique monument and many of those arrive on any one of the rainy days that blesses this region through the summer. So our advice is, book on-line if you can so you can avoid that queue. Or alternatively make sure you visit very early or late in the afternoon, otherwise in the height of the season you could have to endure up to four hours worth of queues and that is only for a ticket. We arrived at lunchtime and bided our time until 3.30pm. We got straight to the ticket desk without any queues and had just 45 minute waiting time for the tour. The later you leave it, the quieter it becomes. Out of season you will pay 89PLN (around £18) and high season you will pay 94PLN (around £19). You are also expected to pay 10PLN (£2.00) if you want to take any photos.

The opening hours of the mines vary depending on the season, although from May to the end of September you can enter from 8.00am until 9.00pm (and this is the last entry time for tickets – so you need to allow a further 2-3 hours for your tour). This can be a demanding tour with walking, climbing up and down 800 steps and walking through salt cladded chambers, so take with you perseverance, wear sturdy footwear and take warm clothing. Although I must say, I didn’t know quite where the time went – you will never feel bored.

And whilst you are there, you must have a walk around the village, which is equally beautiful with its castle, mine shafts and the Market Square which offers a 3D pavement painting of the underground Cathedral. It is well worth another hour around this quaint place taken over by the salt-mine master.

 

1 – 2 Day visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau – Oswiecim

Our travel experiences are mostly coloured with shades with joy and happy memories and so to consider adding a visit to a place shrouded in pain, suffering, death and torture seems an unlikely choice. Although for a visit to Kraków, building in a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau is a necessary choice. A visit that, through the discomfort of acknowledging the horror here, we can honour the 1 million people murdered and pay our respects to their suffering. To a time in history that reminds us our lack of humanity and persecution, Auschwitz serves as a harsh reminder of our need to never let such a horrific event ever happen again. We must remember the past and educate the next generation to ensure that we live in a world where the word Holocaust will never be repeated. We owe it to those generations wiped out during both World Wars to offer them our solidarity in a world that needs our compassion.

Both Camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau can be visited in one day although do bear in mind that you will be taking an enormous emotional rollercoaster and so if you can spread the two camps over two days and stay somewhere local or camp overnight, this is better, in our opinion. Each Camp needs 90 minutes to do a visit justice and that is without joining any of the inevitable queues and groups that these two museums attract. For individual entry you can arrive on the day and collect a free ticket which we suggest you do either early or late in the afternoon. In fact entry after 4.30pm is best as the crowds wane after this time; the number of groups seriously impacted on our ability to find the stillness we felt the Camp deserved. Auschwitz is more of a museum, using the ‘barrack huts’ as very well organised storyboards for life in the Camp. Birkenau is a much more raw experience where the railway provides a haunting backdrop to the Death Camp and the experiences here, for me, were so much more provocative. There are no queues here and moving around the Camp is much easier.

For more information about our experiences at Auschwitz, what to expect and how to avoid those queues – check out our blog here.

 

1 Day visit to Zapilie – The Painted Village

After the buzz of a city, there is nothing nicer than heading out into the country to experience Polish village culture – and this is what you get if you take the trip out to Zapilie, 60 miles to the east of Kraków. Tradition, folklore and charm ensure that this is a diversion worth making as you uncover a palette of colour inside and out of the homes of Zapilie.

Way back in 1800s, women-folk would paint their walls to hide the smoke-stained and blackened walls from their stove’s soot. As the years went on, the bland white, grey and cream paintings became more flamboyant and today the paintings are now seen on many of the outside walls of these delightful traditional cottages.  Take an hour or two to wander in the church, see the pretty Fire Station and walk the quiet lanes where wells, walls, kennels, bee-hives, farm buildings and front doors are decorated with love, artistry and colour.

Zapilie, Painted Village, near Krakow
Zapilie, Painted Village, near Krakow

2-3 Days – Eagle’s Nest Route 

Don’t let Kraków fool you. A city of glorious majestic finery it may be, although just minutes north you will find route 794 which takes you on a journey through Poland’s Jurassic Upland – a protected region that is home to undulating hills, forested landscape, the Polish Sahara desert and outcrops of grey limestone rocks that puncture the earth. On top of that, grand castles dot the land in royal stature, with valleys fit for a king; well these days more likely walkers, climbers and nature lovers.

From Kraków north to Częstochowa, the Eagle’s Nest Route will offer you 12 Royal Castles, 22 Knights’ Castles and 10 Defensive Watchtowers. Each will tell you Medieval tales of battles and warriors, whilst on the other side, Mother Nature will share her own version of how things came to be with her compelling scenery and ancient geology. What a combination. Whilst we didn’t manage to do the whole route of 100 miles, we managed to reach Zamek Ogrodzieniec in one day; having visited Korzkiew, Rabsztyn en route. On our return journey to Kraków we then dropped into see Pieskowa Skała and the Hercules Rock and then to the Ojców National Park where you find stunning hiking country, a castle and a classic Polish Wooden Church built in a stream.

As you motor north, you can’t miss Poland’s answer to the Sahara Desert. Now ok, it’s not really like the African Queen, although it sure is a unique landscape and not what I was expecting in the middle of Poland. Although not naturally formed, Błędowska Sands is Central Europe’s largest mass of sand and is hundreds of years old. It was created by years of deforestation back in in the Middle Ages and with over-farming the water table lowered so much that it could no longer support life. And so we have our little Polish Desert. A steep descent will have you down on the sands within 1/2 mile of the car park viewing point and from there you can explore for miles. It’s yet again, another unique experience within the shadow of Kraków’s grandeur.

This route is a rich tapestry of wow moments and will give your Kraków visit a completely different edge. Don’t miss it.

Rabsztyn Castle, Eagle's Nest Route, Kraków
Rabsztyn Castle, Eagle's Nest Route, Kraków
Ogrodzieniec Castle, Eagle's Nest Route, Kraków
Ogrodzieniec Castle, Eagle's Nest Route, Kraków
Blędowa Sands, Poland's Desert
Blędowa Sands, Poland's Desert
Pieskowa Skała Castle, Eagle's Nest Route, Kraków
Pieskowa Skała Castle and Hercules, Eagle's Nest Route, Kraków
Ojców's Wooden Church, Eagle's Nest Route, Kraków

 

And so there we have it! A 10 day excursion around the treasure trove that is the Kraków region. With a compass full of gifts, it matters not which way you point, you will experience a cultural, emotional and historical journey through a wonderful part of the country. Poland offers so much to its eager guests, and with so many delights just within touching distance, surely a visit to Kraków will give you the greatest immersion into this Polish wonderland that even Alice herself would be proud to enter.

Come! That is all we have to say! Just come!

 

More Polish treasures you might enjoy discovering

 

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Auschwitz/Birkenau – Poland’s ultimate memorial

Auschwitz/Birkenau – Poland’s ultimate memorial

On a grey day in July the blanket of cloud seemed somehow appropriate for our visit to Birkenau and Auschwitz. What is it about sunshine on a sombre shrine that just doesn’t seem right? So we welcomed the pallid covered skies which matched our mood and the history that awaited us.

 

Birkenau

We arrived at Auswchitz II – known as Birkenau, at lunchtime and settled ourselves in a parking area, ideal for campers for the night. And whilst it really was just a car park – it had the backdrop of THE GATE; that strangely iconic yet dark entrance that sealed the fate of so many hundreds of thousands of people, the vision of which stirred up so many emotions in us… And that was before we had even stepped foot inside. 

The rain, whilst colouring the landscape in a shade of sobriety, wasn’t hugely inviting, although in a window of dryness we seized our chance and took our first steps. What impact would it have on us? Whilst we had our Treblinka visit a couple of weeks back, our exposure to Europe’s World War Memorials have all had a very different energy to them; after all the victims’ plights were often unique, their battles individual and yet their deaths always united in injustice. We had no doubt that this, the largest of all Camps, would have a very different feeling for us.

If you can block out the kaleidoscope of ponchos and umbrellas from the plethora of tourist groups, there is a deep reverence from the second you see the wall of barbed wire. The earth beneath you is a stark reminder of what has been here before and the blood, sweat and tears that were the prisoners’ only companions.

Birkenau was haunting, deathly silent and evocative enabling you to find a stillness to reflect, honour and remember the horrors that happened here. There is something so real about the acres that stretch out in front of you with chimneys rising from the earth surrendering their plumes to the heavens above. It is visually dramatic and grabs at your heart as you walk along that railway towards the chambers trying to take in the enormity of events here.  As you pass by the remains of the gas chambers, the stench of dirty smoke still grips the bricks. You question whether it is your imagination although the pungency is unmistakable. And when you see the ashly remains on the pond next door, strangely supporting some sturdy form of plant life, it seems a bizarre co-existence. There was no mistaking the horrors here and it is a memory that will never leave me.

The memorial stones, each in a different language beg you to dig deep into your heart and stop a while to remember. The end of the railway, just calls for you to sit and reflect on the lives that ended here as they stepped off onto that fateful platform and it was this moment that touched me so profoundly. Despite the group that was forming around me, as I sat at the end of the line, I found that moment so evocative as I played out the scene like a movie in my mind. Uncertainty, fear, anticipation, ignorance, hopelessness….

And as you entered the damp smelling wooden bunkers that healthy prisoners often had to construct, you were presented with a shocking vision of how 400 men, women and children were stuffed into 28 rows of bunkbeds and expected to live with the anticipation of whether they would even awake with the morning’s sunrise.

And as I lay there at night listening to the silence I could have sworn that a ghostly rumble of a train passed by and as every car drove by the camp in the morning’s dawn, the unmistakable sound of them crossing the railway sent a shiver down my spine as I connected to the significance of those tracks. The phrase ‘This is the end of the line’ suddenly took on a completely new meaning and relevance for me.

 

Auschwitz Museum

Auschwitz, just about a mile away is strangely a completely different experience. An old Polish Army Barracks that was commandeered by the Nazis is still completely intact. Yet it is more than the look of the place that feels so different to Birkenau.  The sad thing to hit you before anything else is the rows upon rows of cars – no haunting gateway – just a caterpillar trail of coaches side by side. This is then exacerbated by the similar caravan-style queues – bored masses looking to get a guided tour ticket not really contemplating the rollercoaster ride ahead of them. The airport-style security didn’t create a feeling of remembrance for me either – not the start I had expected to my Auschwitz trip. I felt herded, untrusted and part of a mob! 

And this feeling was the one that stayed with me throughout our 90 minute visit. Darting in between groups of multilingual tours, looking for gaps where I could read the thorough information boards with some, any sense of stillness. As an introvert, this environment was incredibly suffocating, even in one of the most powerful places in the world. I craved space to be with my thoughts and connect to the souls who spent their last days/months in this rigid, cold and hostile prison.

There’s no doubting that the Auschwitz museum is excellent. The level of detail, shocking photos of the horrors of incarceration and the history that it honours, is outstanding. Although I felt somehow disconnected from it. I’m not sure if it was the groups that depersonalised it for me or that the museum somehow diverted your attention away from the truth and masked the reality. I find it hard to put my experiences into words. Certainly too many people impacted hugely on our experience. We missed out on a large number of the buildings just out of a pure sense of self-preservation.

That aside, the most chilling part of our tour was entering one of the gas chambers with its dark, squalid, blackened walls… it was an essential yet a hard experience to grasp. Just for a moment you could get a tiny sense of how prisoners were herded into this place with their last view of life being this deathly hallow. Paradoxically as I stood back to observe how the groups shuffled in, in their droves, I wondered whether anyone had clocked the stark comparison of their procession into the chamber to that of the prisoners. Seventy years before us, Jews and other nationalities in their thousands entered this building each day, their fates sealed. Yet they never had the privilege of walking free. They had no shoes on their feet, nor likely clothes on their backs. Perversely their only liberation from their terror was death. I wonder how many people thought about the gratitude of life and breath walking out on the other side of this hell hole?  

I’ve read many reports about people’s visits to Auschwitz and had an air of anticipation about our pilgrimage here. After our visit to Treblinka I had a sense of what it might be like for us, although I was determined to find some space to pay my respects and expose myself to this time and place in history. Their memories must be preserved – well this is how it feels for me.

I am so glad that we went to Birkenau first as it was the raw, intense emotion that I was expecting. I allowed the tears to flow as I put myself in the shoes of those who arrived here by that deathly train and in small way imagine how they must have been feeling as it dawned on them that there was no ‘resettlement’ Utopia.  I am glad, albeit that sounds like a completely inappropriate word to use in this context, to have visited Auschwitz 1 although it was not the experience I was expecting. My conclusion is, if you want to learn about the harrowing lives of prisoners in this Holocaust hell, then Auschwitz will give you an excellent visual portrayal of life in the camp. If LIFE is even the right word to use. If you want a deeply profound exposure to the rawness where the reality of the Death Camp can be felt hanging in the air like a city smog, then Birkenau is the place to invest more of your time.

Each of the museums creates a different experience and I think that had we visited Auschwitz first, we may have missed Birkenau, and that for me would have been a tragedy. It had a far more profound impact on me and it was far easier to pay our respects here.

 

What both Camps implore of its visitors is to remember, reflect and honour. It asks of us to live with compassion for our neighbours and to rid ourselves from the condemnation, dominance and judgement that are the floorboards of conflict and war.

 

Practicalities of your visit

Here are some tips, based on our experiences that might help you to make the most of your visit here and give yourself every opportunity of having the space the Holocaust victims deserve.  

  • Both Camps are free to enter, unless you want a tour guide with commentary. Then you pay around 45PLN and have to either book this on line and be prepared to wait for an available day or queue up on the day.  They are increasingly getting more and more visitors, so they are trying to organise the crowds. To avoid the queues, book online here if you want a guided tour
  • If you do not want a guided tour, then you can turn up on the day and get one of the limited free tickets. Between 8-10am and 4-7 pm you can ask for a free ticket and avoid the queues.
  • You can visit just Birkenau if you wish and you don’t need to collect a ticket at all. You can simply walk in and take your time around the camp, which has a lot less groups milling around.
  • Do not take in rucksacks into Auschwitz 1 as you will need to pay 4PLN (80p) for it to go in a locker.
  • For Auschwitz don’t queue up on the right-hand side as this is for people who want to pay for a guided tour. Go up to one of the team who are around the entrance and ask for free entrance. They will give you a ticket with a time slot that is the next available period to visit. They have a number of freebies available throughout the day. So whilst you may need to wait, you will get in without queues.
  • If you can, visit Auschwitz after 4.30pm as there are so many groups that it can make your tour claustropobic. Groups tend to wane at this end of the day as they return to their hotels.  Depending on the time of year you go, (see their website for more detail) Auschwitz is open from 8.00am until between 3.00 in Winter and  7.00pm in Summer. So go early or late to avoid the queues.
  • A tour guide isn’t necessary as all the buildings have very clear and thorough information boards that will enlightening your journey and you can move at your own pace. 
  • We recommend going to Birkenau first as there are no tickets required for entry and no queues. The acreage is very different to Auschwitz so although you still see crowds they are spread over a much larger area. It is less suffocating and far more personal.  You have the space to breath and remember, which is after all one of the reasons we go.

 

Our conclusions of our Auschwitz experience is that it is a must see and do experience. It feels so important to honour those who lived, died and survived these deathly camps full of horror and persecution. If every person could give a day of their lives to the memory of these souls, our remembrance and compassion for their plight could influence a better world for tomorrow. 

 

A moving visit to Treblinka, Poland

A moving visit to Treblinka, Poland

Treblinka, a seemingly lost world, hidden in the forest, out of sight although never out of mind for Poland’s World War 2 memorials. A place that invokes the stirring of emotion from deep within the belly of any visitor intent on learning more about the atrocities of this war’s holocaust and on paying their respects to the hundreds of thousands of people who died mercilessly here.

We have been inspired during our travels to continue our World War education since stumbling upon a cemetery in Slovenia that piqued our interested in understanding the real nuances of the two wars and fill in the shameful gaps from our schooling education. It was time we put this right and through our learning enable us to honour those who died at the hands of power, greed and dominance. Our most recent exploration was at Colditz in Germany.

Yet we knew that Poland would give us a completely different perspective of the war-time experiences and that it would feature heavily in our trip given that Auschwitz was an intended destination. Yet little did we realise just how much Poland would reveal to us as we committed to our educational journey from the depths of Owl Mountain in Silesia in the south to the horrors of Treblinka in the north east.

My research found Treblinka Extermination Camp some time ago, and after visiting Warsaw and understanding more about the Ghetto and Uprising, it felt an absolute must. A must because for almost 1 million people, this was to be their final destination, wrapped up in the vial guise of resettlement.

An emotional ride – Treblinka 1

We set out early before any coaches arrived so we could treasure the peace that Treblinka demanded. The first thing that struck me was how abruptly the sound stopped. We had parked overnight in our camper in the museum car park and were entertained by the songs from the Golden Oriels.  Their wolf-whistle calls made me smile despite the sobriety of the occasion – it was a lovely alarm call. Yet as we walked through the mock gates of the Treblinka 1 Memorial Site, it was as though there was an invisible barbed wire fence that they could not or would not pass. And their sound ceased in the tiniest of moments that you could almost miss it. It was striking in its subtly.

The second thing that created an instant impact were the ribbons threaded through the pine forest as we approached the Memorial.  Each strand having half a dozen names of those who perished here. Weaving in and out of the thicket of trees, thousands of names hanging amongst the forest that was their deathly hallow, suddenly became people – real personalities who lived, breathed and died in this hidden camp. What an amazing testimony to their lives; forever immortalised, forever held in our loving thoughts. 

Treblinka was destroyed and burnt to the ground at the end of the war, so in truth there isn’t much to see visually of the camp, for which I feel thankful in some ways. Although the reconstruction of the platform and railway line gave me an instant feeling of reality. The enormity of Treblinka’s horror started to dawn on me; the huge stones, each one dedicated to a country who lost the lives of their loved ones; Bulgaria, Greece, Ukraine, France, Czech Republic, Poland to name just a few.  Although nothing would prepare me for the next vision as I turned the corner. A huge memorial stone that covers over the gas chamber, stands with strength and defiance against a epoc that saw no respect for humanity and cultural diversity. The Father stone carved with the suffering plight of the Jews held my gaze, although it is the stone forest that surrounds it that really took away my breath. Each stone representing a town, city or community that lost their families to the will of the Nazis. Thousands of them, large and small, scattered across the acres in front of me. It left me incredulous at the horror inflicted by man against man! And when they created this memorial in the late 1950’s, they created an inscription that simply states ‘Never Again!’

Two simple words begging us to serve up a dish of compassion not hatred – yet lessons have not been learnt. Ethnic cleansing continues to still the beating hearts of those persecuted by regimes believing in their own supremacy. Sadly humility towards our neighbour is an all too distant relation that has yet to come into the family fold. When will we learn from these painful memories that scar our history?  Surely it is time for us to stop our ego’s demand for dominance and to start to live with love, hope and unity?

 

The path to Treblinka 2

I thought that Treblinka 1 was the core of the experience, although as we walked towards the Black Road which was built by the prisoners, we realised that it lead to something more. More horror, more death and more sorrow.

The cobbled path was hard to walk on, although I felt it was important to honour all those who knelt on bleeding knees, in the heat of the day, laying each stone to create the path. The path to their deaths. I didn’t want to take the easy route – I wanted my feet to feel the discomfort of the uneven surface. They gave their lives for this path and the least I could do was walk on it in their memory.

The deeper into the forest we went – 2.5km to be specific, something strange began to happen. I became acutely aware of the soil, which was strangely blackened, a greyness that was not natural. Nature did not make this path, this was something more. Did this blackness symbolise death or something more sinister? It really didn’t bare thinking about. At the same time though, I noticed an acrid taste at the back of my mouth, almost as if the fumes, the smoke was still lingering in the air. I know in reality that this couldn’t be true, could it? Could the embers still linger? Could the smoke be forever carved deep into the bark and woven amongst the pines? Is this a legacy that the ghosts will never allow to cleanse? I felt their pain in every step and every breath I took.  

In an eerily still forest with little to bring it to life, the only colour came from the yellow butterflies that darted in front of us symbolising transformation and freedom. Beneath our feet nothing grew except the hardiest of grasses and heather. Nothing really flourished here. Even the old quarry that the Nazi’s used to hoodwink the community into thinking this camp was a commercial enterprise, looked lifeless and cold. And it feels right that it was this way.

As we approached Triblinka 2 – the Labour Camp, all that remains are the footings of buildings that stored the Quarry tools or the Zoo for the Guard’s amusement. Although constructed buildings were not needed to imagine the horror here. The cries and tears of those trapped in this place were carried on the breeze.  And yet, I noticed the thousands of pink scabious flowers that danced on the sparse covered carpet that now shields the evidence of Triblinka’s Labour Camp site, (which takes on more of a complexion of an archeological site than a historical horror film). It somehow belies the truth of what lies beneath the surface and the hatred and fear that hung in the air, yet each flower sprung from the earth in salute to each person’s death, a tribute to their heart-beats and a memory not to be forgotten. 

It may be over 70 years ago, although this extermination camp is as real as if it were yesterday. And that is less about the memorials that have been lovingly created and more about what still hangs in the air. A reminder of what has gone before and how it shapes who we are today. The forgiveness of a nation, the healing of a wound so deep and unity in the creation – at least this is what we pray for.

 

In memory of those who have perished, your souls float in the wind as it whistles through the Treblinka forest and we remember each and every one of you.

 

For more information about the horrors of this camp, reputed to have killed the largest number of people, second only to Auschwitz, click here.

Wrocław City Tour Poland

Wrocław City Tour Poland

Wrocław, may well be Poland’s fourth largest city and capital of the south west region of Silesia, although this seems not to be on people’s travel itinerary. Perhaps the lure of Krakow to the east has more appeal. After all the cities we have seen in the last two years of our full time travels, Wroclaw has shot up to poll position, sitting proudly in our Top 5 favourites.

Wroclaw is one of those places that defies adjectives, because something far more profound than simple words are needed. The best way I can describe it… is like a novel that you pick up from the library that looks pretty enough from the outside and yet once you begin reading its compelling story, you realise how little the cover does it justice.

This is how I feel about Wrocław. When I visit a place I am often in a quandary about how much research to do before we go. Do too much and it spoils the surprise; do too little and it’s easy to miss the real essence. So for our visit to Wroclaw, I had done a little reading up from a Lonely Planet’s Guide and plotted the main ‘tourist highlights’ from a Wroclaw website. Yet I have never felt quite so unprepared for the real truth behind the elegant facade of this city. In many ways I feel a little ashamed at the lack of knowledge that I had gleaned beforehand. Having remedied that on our return, I now feel like I know a bit more of the real Wrocław and, in truth would love to return to speak to its soul and not the glossy, yet delightful image that it portrays on the outside.

Wrocław – Did you know?

Did you know that this city used to be called Breslau and only became Wrocław after the German’s were defeated in WW2?

Did you know that the city was devastated and had to be rebuilt after a Mongol attack in 13th Century?

Did you know that the city was to fall to yet another attack which would devastate both the Medieval buildings and its population?  In fact 70% of the city was demolished by the Germans in 1944 so that they could build a fortress to encompass the city, trapping residents inside its walls as part of their defence agains the advancing Soviet Army.

Did you know that The Siege of Breslau in 1945 was one of the worst human tragedies of the War loosing a recorded 170,000 people during an 80 day siege?

Did you know that in the aftermath of the battle, more devastation was to rain on Wrocław as poverty, raping, pillaging and disease took their toll on the remaining civilians?

Did you know that the Anti-Soviet movement – the Orange Alternative was founded in Wrocław in the early 1980s and they used creativity and humour to stand up against the Communist rule and they played a significant role in Poland’s fight for independence. Their symbol was the dwarf – more on that later.

And did you know that it was awarded European Capital of Culture in 2016 and was voted Best European Destination of 2018. Now that is some come back!

Of all the great cities we have visited, Wrocław is the one that stands head and shoulders above others for its sheer tenacity and strength against opposition. Whilst they may have been brutalised, overwhelmed and beaten, it feels like today’s Wrocław is saying ‘We are not defeated’.

The example of the Phoenix rising from the Ashes, has never been more apt.

Every building, that looks so immaculate in the Market Square has a tale to tell and, whilst its frontage may delight your eyes, it is what lies behind the facade that is more important. Perfectly reformed, a scar or three may be, although tough, strong and irrepressible. Wrocław will have your admiration and undying affection when you blend its historical battles with today’s modern and award winning city.

With this historical context in place, I feel it is now appropriate to show off the visual display that this city offers the eager visitor. Click on the image below to see a short video of our highlights.

 

The Motoroamer’s Wrocław City Tour Video

 

Wrocław strangely doesn’t have a feel of a city, as even on the outskirts there is very little evidence of the built up, residential and industrial zones that are so often found in large cities around the world. The one thing that struck us most was how well catered for cyclists are around the city. Everywhere you look there are dedicated bridges, cycle routes and even traffic lights – reminiscent of our trip to The Netherlands last month. And then there are the trams, buzzing all around the city offering car-less travel if you wish. And I’m sure this contributed to the feel of the place. No traffic jams, no honking horns and no congestion. It was a joy to cycle around without the threat of being clipped by a passing lorry.  That isn’t to say that it was deserted. There was still plenty of atmosphere, just not the sludge that you often feel in an inner city.

Whetting your Wrocław appetite

Situated on the banks of the River Oder, Wrocław is often described as Poland’s Venice. Having been to Venice I’m not really a fan of this comparison as it’s a huge set of shoes to fill and I feel that Wrocław deserves an identity of all its own. That said, there sure is a lot of water here and its 130 bridges and 12 islands form the basis of Worcław’s charismatic allure.

Wrocław’s Art

Wrocław is colourful. It embodies its creative history and it really does demand that you to look up from your phone and see the roof lines that stand out against the afternoon’s brilliant blue skies. Or perhaps you just want to listen to the music that seems to float around the streets in some sort of melodic happiness.

As I mentioned earlier, gnomes played an integral part in Wroclaw’s history. When the Soviet rebellion group, The Orange Alternative was born, they adopted a creative strategy to their resistance. They would deface the propaganda posters around the city with street art, most noticeably mischievous gnomes, as a way of laughing at the establishment. Every since then, the gnome has been an important symbol to Wrocław and in 2001 the city decided to commemorate the rebellion’s artistry by placing a bronze statue called Papa Dwarf at the Group’s meeting place. Five years later a local artist had the idea to create smaller statues, which have since been placed all around the city – between 300 – 400 of them to be precise, each one telling a modern-day tale of city life.  They are so easy to miss and yet once you catch one, you find yourself on a mission to find others.

Aside of the cheeky chappies that are found at ground level, slightly higher up on your eye-line you will find some other pretty stunning monuments to people, events and ideals. In fact almost around every corner, there will be some statue or another that will intrigue you. There are chairs, footballs, fountains to name just a few that really give Wrocław its character and charm.

Worcław’s Market Square

Having said that the comparison with Venice was a mute one, I am about to contradict myself when I come to describe Worcław’s Market Square. Whichever direction you approach it, whether from The Shambles or The Penitent Bridge, the Market Square will impress. From streets bordered with the tallest of buildings that sometimes feel claustrophobic suddenly you open up into this atmospheric square with cafe-lined edges, where a piano tinkles filling the air and an acoustic rhythm that bounces off the walls. And that’s all before you caste your eyes around the skyline of buildings. Gothic, Medieval, Baroque, they all have a presence here and you could imagine the history that holds them up. And I think armed with the know of the bygone era it makes these facades even more impressive. You will not want to leave this enigmatic space and you could easily while away a couple of hours drinking their cheap beer and people watching.

The centrepiece is the St Elizabeth Church and the Town Hall which elegantly and assertively stand with pride relishing the placement of every piece of rebuilt brickwork. These are just testimony to Wroclaw’s culture.

Worcław’s Cathedral Island

Don’t miss the 14th century Cathedral – St John Baptist, which like so many other dwellings was destroyed in the Siege of 1945, yet has been beautifully rebuilt back to its former glory. There is some evidence that one of the towers is 10th Century, hence why they look so different, so the attention to detail in the reconstruction is outstanding. Can you just imagine what the view looks like from the top of this 97m viewpoint?

As you amble down the tree-lined avenue you get sucked into the effervescent buildings, despite the tourist trains disrupting your peace. The Tumski Bridge has got to be one of those Instagram moments, as lovers capture their sentiments in a padlock and a statue of Pope John XXIII stands with grace and presence overlooking the river that surrounds this stunning piece of heaven, leaving you mesmerised.

Modern Wrocław

And to complete our Wrocław city tour who could not put a park and a fountain on the agenda? Although this is no ordinary park, nor any normal fountain.

This is a park that includes acres of landscaped zones including a Japanese Garden. If like us, half a day on your feet exploring has been enough, then do make time for an evening display at the multimedia fountains. Chill out on the grass as you watch the synchronised water play in time with classical, jazz or modern music and what how the lights and visual effects dance around the arena. The shows are free and go on throughout the day, on the hour from 1000 and the evening shows start at 1800 through to 2140 and it is lovely to be part of this event and I guess at night with the full effect of the lights and the setting sun make it even more atmospheric.

 

Practicalities

  • Wrocław is a great all-year round city in part because of the lack of crowds. We visited at the beginning of July and were not overrun with tourists – which is our worst nightmare (even though we are one of them!)
  • Cycling is a great way to get around, as to see all the sights by foot will make for a tiring experience. There are plenty of cycle tracks into and around the city and bicycle parks to chain up your wheels allowing you to go on foot for a while.
  • There are plenty of trams moving around the city, so if you don’t have bikes, then there are alternative transport options.
  • We thought a beer in the Market Square would be expensive, although unlike other cities we have visited, we didn’t feel ripped off. A beer and juice cost us 17 PLN, about £3.40.
  • There is a Tourist Information centre in the Market Square. (51.109416 17.030572).
  • If you want camping, then we stayed at Camping Wroclaw, about 20 mins south east of the city (51.075781 17.089353). It’s 100PLN per night, which on Poland standards is expensive although it is convenient and a very good quality site that is secure.
  • Wroclaw is accessible from Poznan in the north west and Krakow from the east.  Even Warsaw is only a 3.5hr drive away.

 

And so, what say we about this city of Poland? An example of a place besieged and ravaged by war and oppression, yet has risen up against its opponent to reclaim its rightful place in Europe’s ‘Best Destinations’. You will not be disappointed by Wrocław in any way.

2 weeks crossing Germany

2 weeks crossing Germany

2 weeks in Germany is surely not enough to absorb a country’s culture let alone navigate its compass points sufficient well. In truth though we were only passing through en route to Poland, so we knew that it would be ‘short and sweet’.  Although now into year three of our full-time travels, we have evolved our travel philosophy and rather than racing from A-B, we have come to appreciate the journey so much more and to stop along the way to smell the roses, or the Lime trees as we have come to enjoy here in Germany.  Every journey is precious and should never be taken for granted.

It’s a bit like Dorothy’s dance up the Yellow Brick Road. Without the path on the way to see the Wizard of Oz she would never have met the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin-man.  It feels the same for us now.

So with hopes high and anticipation strong inside Scoobie’s walls, we donned our leder-hosen and turned our wheels to the Fatherland. Myles had three years in Germany as a Force’s child, so we had the added advantage of his fluency as we coursed our way through the Germany countryside. So what would Germany teach us along the way – plenty we were sure of that.

Check out our Interactive Map that shows our route, Points of Interest and of course our Camping spots with co-ordinates.

I’ll be honest, our arrival into Germany wasn’t blessed as a joyous occasion as I was nursing sciatica so it made for an uncomfortable initiation. Well I say initiation, we have been to Germany in Scoobie before – as we visited Bavaria in 2016, although this year our entry point was from The Netherlands so it did feel like completely new territory.  Whether it was my state of mind I’m not sure, our first day didn’t bowl me over. What did interest me though was to see how the Dutch culture seemed to temporarily fuse with German, as we crossed the border.  For a good 50km, bicycles continued to be ever-present and traditional style windmills still speckled the flat landscape with their sails. We’ve seen it before with other border crossings, although on this particular trip it really hit home how cultures blend before claiming their own unique identity. I wonder if it will be the same in Poland?

Rees 

Rees was our first stop, on the banks of the Rhine. Sadly we didn’t get to explore the town; well nothing much more than Lidls, and I even say ‘we’ loosely. I saw it from my bed at least. We were told how nice Rees is as a town and the Promenade along the river, certainly seemed to have promise as we shimmied past it.   There was a well organised Stellplatz just five minutes from town for €8 including EHU (co-ordinates 51.76422, 6.38886)

Dülmen

Our next station stop was driven by the wet stuff – no not rain, water…. we love being by water of any kind, although Dülmen sadly fell short despite the blue patches on the map. Our overnighter was though by the river, which was some consolation although sadly no exploration was permitted until sciatica decided to ‘do one’. Still the Stellplatz was lovely and worth the short diversion for one the few freebies in Germany.  Hausdülmen Stellplatz – 51.8074, 7.24697 no services

Heading for the mountains

After the disappointment of far too many autobahns, an enormous volume of traffic that we are just not used to in Europe and an uninspiring landscape, I headed for our trusty, slightly disheveled map, in search for bumpy green bits. We don’t use paper maps very much with our digital resources, although on this occasion with a weak internet that plagues much of the country, the map was actually a great source of info that guided us eastwards.

I found mountains, I found ski stations and I found Natural Parks. Yeah, at last! This was more like it and our sort of landscape. Perhaps finally Germany was going to deliver. Our vista changed after we hit Meschede and we thankfully exited the painstaking movement from the caterpillar style autobahn. Rolling hills, forest and reservoirs had our hearts sighing with relief. These mountains were simply gorgeous.

With red kites flying overhead and fresh forest pines as our borders, the ride was just lovely. And this region’s houses were changing too. Characterful black and white Tudor style buildings welcomed you into the countryside. No more cities to bypass, no more industry, just warmly embracing villages that oozed charm and delight. We finally came upon Schmallenburg, a delightful spot that is just hugged by forests and mountains. Our stop for the night was Winkhausen, a lovely Stellplatz in someone’s back garden; for just €8 per night with EHU and water extra, payable with coins. Why not treat yourself to a discounted visit to the Spa, which for guest of the Stellplatz was only €8 from 1800-2200  (co-ordinates 51.16073, 8.34074).  With walks, lakes and a 5* Spa just next door, there is everything you could wish for, for an outdoor experience.  

Now on first glance, Winkhausen may seem like a backwater place, although come April and you will be treated to an annual musical festival that puts this place on the German map.  

Edersee

Riding high on our success at finding some wonderful countryside, our spirits were raised and our hopes soaring as we continued our path towards Poland. It was amazing to think though that we had been travelling four days and still we hadn’t reached half way across this great land. I don’t think either of us had realised quite how expansive Germany was.

So water was our calling yet again and as we wound through the beautiful countryside full of bountiful crops and quaint towns, we found our home for the weekend – Edersee. A man-made reservoir that is heaven on a water-sport lover’s plate.  With wildlife abound, especially the nightly chorus of frogs, we withstood some pretty full-on thunderstorms that gifted us some amazing lake-side views in their  aftermath.  We stayed at a great Stellplatz – Rehbach (co-ordinates 51.18388, 9.026714) for €6 per night and it was ideal. If you have yourself a kayak or bicycles, then this is the place for you.  

Sondershausen

We love getting off the beaten track and if we can find ‘home’ in the middle of nowhere, then that is what drives us (and water!!) Just off the A38 autobahn is Sondershausen which, like so many of its village neighbours has an oversized castle for the size of town. And the houses are just so incredibly ornate, stately even.  Yet just ten minutes outside of the town you will find dense forest, which offers shelter to an amazing Wildlife and Adventure Centre for kids. After what seems like miles driving through the pine-scented woodland we arrived at a huge clearing where they have created this Adventure Park and you are allowed to park there for €4 per day, although there are no services.  A super diversion. (co-ordinates 51.33821, 10.86295)

A bit of Modern and Ancient History coming up

I have to be honest that our trip to Colditz came completely out of the blue. Whilst looking for a sensible halfway point to the Kromlau Rhododendron Park, which was my border crossing aim, I found a church icon on Search for Sites.  It revealed the name Colditz. With a growing excitement about the World War 2 links and our desire to expand our knowledge of this period, it surely had to be our next station stop?  And indeed it was.  With a small ACSI campsite about 1 mile from the town (co-ordinates 51.1302 12.8308) whose silence was only punctured by the orchestra of birds, we made our way for a tour of this infamous Prisoner of War camp.  Read more about our exploration of this fabulous spot on our blog by clicking here – Escaping from Colditz.  The history, both old and new (relatively speaking) was exhilarating and I got an overwhelming sense of resilience, camaraderie and respect and not the War-time horror that we are taught to expect from camps such as these. It was a great trip that enriched us beyond belief and one that will most certainly stay in our memory banks.

Meißen

With our European travels we have come across many beautiful sights and some stunning cities and towns. We are fast accumulating our Top 10 lists of these stunners. And a new addition to the Medieval Towns compilation will be Meißen, famous for its porcelain – and so much more.  Poised on the edge of the Elbe river, this grand yet exquisite town will charm you and take away your breath. With its 12th century castle, its orange-roofed buildings and atmospheric square, you could almost have stepped into a scene from Pinocchio.  Scaling the heights to the castle to take in the river panorama will certainly impress; as will the descent to the hub of the market square, where horse and carts wait to escort you on a sedate tour. The chocolate-box houses with their brightly coloured facades draw you as if wanting you to be part of the cartoon animation waiting to be played out and all you can do is look and stare. So many different angles, shapes, colours – it truly is a feast for the eyes. And if you’re lucky a quick saunter over the bridge will give you a river reflective perspective of the castle as it states its regal place on the banks of the Elbe. 

We had a lovely, if not a tad noisy Stellplatz that was right on the river’s edge, with the castle as our back drop and our foreground the fast-flowing river. What a joy this place was and I think in truth two days would be perfect at this iconic town to really do it justice.  (co-ordinates 51.16767, 13.47332)

Not bad – Bad Muskau

Our final German destination was calling. Kromlau – a place that appealed to the photographer in me. This tiny hamlet may well be in one of the most remote places in Germany, right on the eastern border with Poland and certainly not on any tourist itinerary. Yet it was its Rhododendron Park and famous Devil’s Bridge that intrigued me.  And what a great shout it was too, although not for the reasons we expected. 

It was a really interesting drive here from Meißen as the landscape changed completely. We drove through a huge expanse of forest with not a car to be seen – not even a fast one! It was like we had entered the twilight zone. We found ourselves at Weißwasser, a place where we considered for overnighting, although throughout our whole German experience, it was the one place I felt the least safe. So needless to say we moved on. Bad Muskau in contrast, was a breath of fresh air and couldn’t have been more different from its neighbour. 

Bad Muskau is a delightful town that rubs shoulders with Poland – the border being in the middle of the river that dissects the two countries. Bad Muskau is full of goodies, each one with their own unique pleasure.  It has two churches, the most ostentatious castle I think I’ve ever seen, Russian War Memorials and gardens that serious put some of England’s Stately Parks to shame.  There are four official cycling paths that give you between 4-10km routes, each one allowing you to dip your toe into Polish water if you wish. Truly a delightful place that we would highly recommend.

Although what of Kromlau, the very reason we ventured this way, I hear you ask?  Well we knew that we would be too late for the Rhododendrons thanks to my back, although it was the iconic bridge that truly caught my eye. The Park is free to enter, you just pay €2 for a two hour car park, that leaves you free to wander around the grounds. Sadly even the bridge wasn’t presented at its best, as after 150 years, it has been fenced off for reconstruction so that it may be protected for generations to come. And much of the lake it spans has been drained in preparation for the work. So I did manage to get some shots, although not quite the iconic masterpiece I was hoping for. Still our joy at Bad Muskau completely made up for it, it has to be said.  We had a super Stellplatz run by Eric a fast-speaking Berliner who liked Myles’ fluency that he gave us free bread on our three day stay. It had all the facilities and was only a mile from this stunner of a town and all for €10.50 per night (or €10 if Eric has been out drinking the previous night and can’t be bothered to work out the detail!). Stellplatz Heideweg can be found at the following co-ordinates (51.53378, 14.71925).

What we’ve learned in Germany

So as we sit here with Poland reaching out its hand of friendship, what of our German experiences?  With memories of red kites soaring above us, a daily dawn chorus that made for a beautiful alarm call, mountains, lakes, castles and history, we will look back fondly at our two-week German route. 

The journey was seriously worth the ride and despite our initial disappointment, we came to love the country and all it has offered us. Interestingly it has been one of the places that we have planned the least and yet has given us some of the most memorable experiences – how often is this the case?  It seriously promotes the ‘travel loosely and let the plans evolve’ philosophy, which we will most certainly be adopting. This has been my most beautiful revelation on this trip.

Germany has many more insights, that we thought we would share as we close this blog.  We hope it helps and informs ready for your tour through Deutschland.

  1. Germany, much like its neighbour France, is very well set up for motorhomes. Stellplatz appear in almost every town and village we passed through. They are well signposted and many of them offer you electrical hook up as well. So never worry about having somewhere to stay. And it feels so very safe here. I never felt threatened in any way – except for Weißwasser.
  2. There’s not much wild camping here, although the Stellplatz are so cheap, it still makes for a great value trip. I think the most we spent on a Stellplatz overnighter was €10.50.
  3. You will not find many touring vans in Germany, especially once in the centre of the country. Most seem to head south to Bavaria, The Black Forest and The Romantic Route. Central to east Germany certainly we saw very few Brits – 2 to be exact. All the other vans were German. No Dutch, no French, just us and our German friends. 
  4. The autobahns are horrible. When you look at a map of Germany, the web of motorways connecting all the major industrial areas and cities are extensive and on every single one, you will always encounter a right lane caterpillar of lorries. It doesn’t make for pleasant driving. So if you can, avoid them.
  5. If however you do decide to take one, then they are toll free for any vehicle under 7.5T.  
  6. Do be aware that there is no universal speed limit on Germany motorways. Although there are guidelines of 81mph, no one sticks to them and speeding is not punishable. So do take care when overtaking as the road may look clear and before you know it, there will be someone royally up your bum flashing you.
  7. Sunday is a great day to travel on autobahns as lorries are forbidden to drive on them and there is a huge fine if they are caught doing so. It made a huge difference to our journey experience on the day we had to course through the country via autobahn.
  8. Take plenty of cash with you (münzen is coins in German). The Stellplatz often have automated machines that only take coins. Manned areas only take cash and in fact in many places we went, cash was preferred and sometimes our Caxton card didn’t work. We were fine in petrol stations and supermarkets though. 
  9. Due to the lack of Brits travelling through, surprisingly there was less  English spoken than I expected. Although with a few phrases you can certainly get by sufficiently. The Germans we met were lovely, warm and welcoming and of course it did help that Myles is fluent. 
  10. Deisel is, outside of the main cities, cheaper than its west European neighbours (@ June 2018). The cheapest we found was €1.239. LPG is freely available and we had no problems filling up. 
  11. Internet is very weak in Germany – we remembered this from our trip here in 2016. So just be prepared that connection may not be easy at all times. Strange how we come to rely on internet…..
  12. And just a little side note – I’ve heard more cuckoos here, in June than anywhere in UK ever! 

 

And so with the heady smells of the Lime tree blossom hanging in the air, we say auf Wiedersehen to Deutchland, and genuinely hope that more Brits head your way to indulge in your joys. We have loved this short and sweet road trip and know that we will back.  Tschüss.