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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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 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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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. 

 

Warsaw’s scars and rebirth

Warsaw’s scars and rebirth

Warsaw, a capital city and a stage for one of World War 2’s most heinous crimes caste with humiliation, destruction and defiance. Even its name embodies the scar of war which it is etched on the very fabric of the city’s landscape, which was changed forever. Although Warsaw was rebuilt, has come through the horror and every avenue has a dedication to those to fought, suffered and died amidst its grip of evil. Yet beyond Warsaw’s World War heroes the city is proud to be the home of Marie Curie, Copernicus and Chopin to name just a few – so it has some real passion, creativity and world stage influence.

We have chosen to tell our Warsaw story in a more visual way for a change and rather than a lot of text, this time, we offer you a pictorial guide and a video. Interestingly both capturing the same elements even though they were produced by us individually. So you have a choice about which you enter – or if you really fancy it, why not do both. Go on spoil yourself.

 

Part 1 – Our Story Page

The Motoroamers

 

Part 2 – Our Vlog Diary

For more information on our Poland Road Trip, why not check out this post. Click the image to read.