POLAND Let me Count the Ways
POLAND Let me Count the Ways
Poland? Cycling? This was the response of friends when I told them about my next trip. Wish they could all have been with me when I first set eyes on Krakow’s Main Market Square. Sure, I’d heard it was one of Europe’s gems thanks to its age (think medieval) and size (it has been compared to the expanse of six football fields) but even when one is well travelled this ranks high on the wow factor.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site was our starting point for a seven-day cycling trip. It began with an introductory dinner where my friend Barb and I discovered that while our trip was self guided, there were 24 other cyclists present plus a guide shepherding three clients.
To me, self-guided is the best of both worlds. You are provided with a bike, map and directions so you are off on an adventure but you have the convenience of your bags being moved and your accommodation pre-booked.
This trip was with Freedom Treks that specializes in cycling trips throughout Europe and while it was surprising to have others doing the same route as us, we enjoyed the meld of nations as cyclists were from Germany, US, Belgium and Switzerland.
The first morning we two-pedalled around Krakow. What a pleasure. As well as the historical attractions of Stare Miasto (the old town), Wawal Royal Castle, and the university (founded in the 1300s!), we were along the Vistula River and into the Planty, a verdant ring park that encircles the old town.
Next we were transported to Zab, Poland’s highest village, where we were back on our bikes to follow a rather challenging route to Zakopane, known as the country’s best alpine resort. This day was a fine example of why I choose to cycle in foreign destinations. The countryside was glorious with picture-perfect villages, some with old wood-framed buildings, amid sprawling meadows lush with crops and wildflowers. On a bike, everything is in your face – the warm air is filled with the fragrance of the outdoors, you hear children at play and wave to locals busy with their everyday chores. All this and it was only Day One of a week with many highlights
A cable car ride out of Zakopane rewarded us with a panoramic view of the High Tatra Mountains and then a blissful downhill ride to zoom through a pastoral landscape. One day we headed into Slovakia, no passport necessary, to pedal 34 kilometres along a new cycling path that followed what was originally a train track. This was a dream day - the trail was flat and on each side fields swayed with swaths of pink, white and yellow wildflowers. Although four of us pedaled, we were each silently lost in our thoughts.
Each small town boasted luxuriant gardens and a church, often ancient. At Denbo, we took a break and pedalled a rough track to view a river gorge. A ‘shortcut’ suggested on our directions, took us into the forest and a rather mucky scene. Four women (we cycled often with Barbel and Lisa, our new German friends) and mud – not a good combination but we made it. One day we did a wicked hill – apparently 2 km but it felt like so much more -- but the reward was the spectacular views of Niedzica Castle after the downhill.
The best day for me was leaving Szczawnica, a jewel of a spa town tucked into a river valley famous for its healthy mineral waters. In the brilliance of morning sunshine, we followed the Dunajec River into a craggy limestone gorge, viewing tourists and many school children on the famed raft ride that maneuvers among the rapids.
Our last stop was Stary Sacz a market town that exudes all the charms that we visit Europe for: you know, the bell towers, winding, cobbled streets, the churches, (in this case a convent, circa 1280, where we heard a symphony rehearsing), and gorgeous old buildings that now house restaurants and shops. A lovely spot to get off of one’s bike and feel pretty good about the 220 kilometres you have cycled in this Eastern European country. From here we were transported back to Krakow to a celebratory dinner in Kazimierz, the Jewish district noted for its restaurants.
My friend and I agreed that despite the fact that we missed all the jokes that were shared by our Deutsch speaking friends, this bike trip rates highly. We loved the surprises of Poland - the restoration of remarkable facades, everything tidy and well organized, and while it isn’t known for its cuisine, in Krakow the menu selections were as good as anywhere and pierogi tastes much better there.
We did get the jokes about being lost as we all were at times. Part of the challenge of self-guided travel is following directions that, in this case, were written by a Polish operator translating them into English and German. Did “yellow house” really mean “yellow building” and if so, that was a weird shade of yellow, more orange. Some things are just lost in translation.