Poland, we had you in our sights the minute we crossed The Channel on 23 May 2018. You were our destination for a tour that would take us on a journey around your World War 2 memorials and a whole host of other surprises that we would unravel as we went along. On 16 June, we crossed your border at Bad Makau in Germany and immediately a crazy buzz throbbed across the street that welcomed us into your embrace. What joys would you offer us as we sought out your highlights, your cultural personality and unique characteristics?
Part 1 of our Poland tour saw us flirt with the Czech Republic border to the southern reaches of the Silesia region and then north-east towards our mid-trip goal of Warsaw. What a start it was and we found ourselves slowly, gracefully falling in love with you and your landscape.
Zagan and The Great Escape
I’ll be honest, our first Polish stopover happened to come from a pin on Search for Sites for no other reason than it was close by and we always like to find somewhere we can ground ourselves when we arrive in a new country and this spot seemed perfect. After the jubilation of finding an ATM and a Tescos we were thrilled to find our ‘home’ was Stalag Luft III – the Prisoner of War site that is famed for its Great Escape, immortalised by the 1963 film. What a find we had stumbled upon. A museum, a reconstruction of the 104 Hut from where the escape plan of 1944 unfolded and the ‘Harry’ tunnel deep in the woods for you to visit. What an incredible memorial to the men who lived, survived and died in this camp. As always a very humbling experience. (51.596976 15.293282)
On the flip side, we had the additional joy of having a US Army training exercise in the field behind us giving us the chance to get up close and personal to Chinnooks and Apache helicopters – happy boy with big toys. For two days we settled our feet on Polish soil with a complete bang, satisfying the boy within.
Heading south-west to the Lakes
We love water and our tiny, eclectic campsite on Lake Czocha was amazing especially with the heat-wave we were experiencing. The Kayak got his first trip out and a short cycle away was one of Poland’s famed castles and with its lakeside view, which made for an awesome visit – even if our tour guide only spoke Polish. The pictures were lovely none the less. (51.032488 15.292713)
Not more than 45 minutes away we found ourselves a super ‘mini-farm’ campsite where we had to sit out a couple of days of storms. Still we made the best of it. (51.030694 15.381793)
Now who would have thought that a Norwegian wooden, stave church would have found itself in the deep south-west of Poland? Still it’s true, this magnificent church that originates in Valdres, Norway was brought over to Poland in 1842 and is one of the most popular tourist sites in southern Poland. There are a couple of nice campsites near-by and the road up to the church is narrow although very doable with a motorhome/RV. There’s a coach park which is the only suitable one for longer vehicles and costs 20PLN (£4.00) for 2hrs. Driving down to the valley floor you will go through Karpacz, which is a buzzy ski resort, offering you the chance for summer and winter activities. We never really considered Poland as Ski destination. There’s a couple of campsites; one in town and another just five minutes on the outskirts, which is new and beautifully designed. Camp 66 has 39 hardstanding pitches with full facilities all for 45PLN per night (exc EHU) with an ACSI discount even in the high season, equating to £9 per night. (50.793705 15.769937)
Coloured Lakes and Swidnica’s Church of Peace
Trip Advisor has its place for sure and with a bit of research I came across some reviews of Poland’s Coloured Lakes hidden in the forest. Old quarry pits that mined for pyrite closed in 1925 and they were filled in with water and over time, Mother Nature has taken her role in creating chemical reactions from the rock beds below. Each one has a different colour; purple, yellow, azure and green and although not the largest lakes or breathtaking thing we’ve ever seen, they were a very charming diversion. There is the possibility of camping up in the Forest, just a five minute walk to the lakes. It’s a primitive spot, although for 30PLN (£6) it looked ok. If you just want to park up for the lake walk, then it’s just 10PLN (£2). The hiking up to the azure lake is a tough one and not disabled friendly, so do make sure you have good footwear and are fit enough to do this walk. (50.82966 15.973466).
Moving on to Swidnica, a city in the south-west region of Poland most famous for its Church of Peace, a UNESCO site. There are only two of these churches left and are the largest timber framed Religious buildings in Europe. This 17th century church was built under very strict regulations; it had to be constructed within 12 months, not have a bell tower and be made from only natural materials. So their three hundred year history is a remarkable testimony to the character of the craftsmen. Inside the building the opulence defies the external simplicity as the Baroque artwork and is breathtaking. A stunning building worth the small entrance fee (1PLN – 20p).
Owl Mountain and Hitler
Deep in the Sudetes Mountains you will find a dark secret that is over 70 years old. Owl Mountain may well be a beautiful rolling landscape that appeals to hikers and sports enthusiasts, although there is something more sinister about this region. Hitler has had his hand in these precious lands and so yet again we find ourselves adding another jigsaw piece to our World War 2 education.
Owl Mountain is renowned for the Riese Project, which was a huge Nazi undertaking back in 1943 to construct a network of tunnels. The tunnels, dug out by Prisoner of War inmates, many of whom perished in appalling underground conditions, were never actually finished and with the end of the war came the end of the construction – with it dying their true purpose. There are rumours that the tunnels which have the guise of underground cities, were to store Hitler’s gold bullion and treasures – a somewhat controversial suggestion or that there were there to store arms and build a super bomb. We can continue to surmise their role in Hilter’s master-plan, although today these tunnels have been secured and opened up to the public by way of a memorial to the thousands who lost their lives. With kilometres of rock drilled away to create these tunnels, you walk through them trying to understand their mystery and conjure up your own interpretation of their place in Europe’s evil perpetrator.
Of the seven tunnels three of them are open to the public; We visited the Complex Rzeczka (also known as Walimskie Drifts) near Walim, where there is a cemetery to honour those who died creating the tunnels. It is a very well thought out tour for 45 minutes although you will need an audio set for the translation. It gives you a great experience of the conditions the prisoners had to work in and leaves you to ponder on their purpose. For 16PLN per person you can join the tour and 12PLN for an audio set. (£5.60 all in per person). Complex Ozówka is the other major tourist destination, which we believe offers a similar tour although is a larger tunnel.
A completely unique perspective of Hilter’s World War influence, which we were not expecting. We found a super free spot at the foot of the mountains just 10 minutes drive from the Rzeczka. (50.661201 16.478901)
Stołowe National Park – geological gorgeousness
After the sinister military experience and I must admit rubbish weather, we craved some fresh air, warmth and natural beauty. And so as we arrived at the Stołowe Mountains and the sun came out we knew we were in for a treat. This had been one of my ‘must see’ destinations as I researched this lovely Silesia region. We did consider by-passing it as the weather was really miserable, although I was determined to see this geological masterpiece, unique to this area. So we chanced our luck and were duly rewarded.
The mountains in this region are not akin to their angular relatives across in the Alps; they are more curvaceous, undulating and soft, with forests and acres of golden wheat fields caressing the landscape. It just warms your heart and forces you to submit to its beauty, which we did with ease.
Camped at an eclectic site just on the edge of the National Park, we were in a good position to travel in with the van and we had two main destinations in our sights. (50.40903 16.381647). One was the Labyrinth at Blędne Skały and the other was the forest at Szczeliniec Mały just outside Karlów. The geology here is just incredible and I have never seen rock formations like it, well not this side of the Atlantic anyway. Boulders that look like they have been thrown together by some giants playing tiddlywinks, which is now a safe playground for us to hike through and have a great experience. Both centres are easy to reach with a motorhome and with road tolls, entry tickets and car parks, the whole day only cost us £16. A fabulous experience, which we have shared more detail about in our blog. Click here to find out more about this fabulous place. For an instant visual, check out our video below.
Wrocław – Poland’s 4th largest city
I give you fair warning here! Worcław will make you run out of superlatives as you try to describe its beauty – now firmly on our Top 5 favourite cities. The Silesia capital that stole our hearts has just been awarded Best European Destination 2018 – so it’s easy to understand the attraction that this place must have to win such an accolade. Aside of the aesthetic brilliance of this place after the tragedy of the 1944 – 80 day Siege, this city has soul, grace and resilience at its core. It is the truest example of a Phoenix rising from the Ashes that we have ever seen. 70% of this city was demolished both on purpose and due to battle and yet it has returned to its former glory with an artistry that simply demands your admiration. The main square looks like something out of a Disney film and is the real heart of the city and yet all around its islands, waterways and parkland you will find untold treasures just waiting to delight you. With mulitmedia fountains that dance to Madonna or Chopin, artwork that expresses liberation and over 300 gnomes, Wrocław has everything and it deserves more than a day to really understand its rebirthing from World War terror. We stayed at Wrocław Camping about 5 miles from the centre, easily doable with bikes or trams. Not cheap, by Polish standards at £20 pn, although very secure. (51.0757781 17.089353)
Read more about our visit here and check out our video below for our highlights.
Łodz – Capital of culture
After the high of Wrocław, sadly Łodz (pronounced Wooge) just didn’t do it for us. You know sometimes how you just don’t feel a place? Well this is Łodz for us. It is a city built on its historical textile industry that has since disappeared. In its place, regenerated factories are now museums, restaurants and shopping malls. Deeper into the veins of the city, you will find Europe’s second longest commercial street reaching nearly 3 miles in length, which is beautifully pedestrianised. Piotrkowska Street offers you elegant buildings with intricate facias and all the shops you can imagine. This main artery though just felt a bit depersonalised and the culture and creative art, just didn’t match our expectations. The street art that we did find, was amazing, although the artistry that we hoped for really didn’t materialise.
Camping here is also tricky – there are no campsites within or close by. So we found a couple of car parks to stop in over night; one in the south about 8 miles away at Rzgów (51.663888 19.489379) and the other only 3 miles north of the town, outside a parkland and cemetery, (51.80521 19.440807) which was super convenient for catching a tram straight into town for just 50p per person covering a 20 minute journey.
Poland has been a lovely surprise so far. I had so few expectations although the diversity of the landscape and the depth of the recent historical scars make for such a profound trip. Someone has just described our World War memorial visits as a pilgrimage and I hadn’t really thought about it in that way before, although it is feeling a bit like that. It seems so much more than just a road trip and a real journey if that doesn’t sound too twee. We have been able to blend some of our beloved ‘off-the-beaten-track’ routes, with nature, history and cities that cry out for your understanding and compassion and not just a fleeting visit. We are looking forward to the second chapter of our Polish adventures unfolding and our minds expanding in tune.