Towers and Trees.

Wroclaw, Poland. 6th June 2014.

The ride from Krakow to Wroclaw was an easy run up the motorway and I was grateful for it. Sleep had been noticeable by its absence last night. A noisy street and an early rising room mate saw to that. Oh the joys of hostel life!
A little bit of bike maintenance before I left, adjusting the chain. It’s a brand new one and has bedded in a bit after nearly 6,000kms. Doris sounds a bit quieter now.
At the hostel in Wraclow I found I was sharing the room with a young German named Mareus who was having his own adventure by riding a 125cc scooter to Azerbaijan via Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Turkey. Good for him and we had plenty in common to chat about. Oh the joys of hostel life!
I’d also received an email from Tim, who’d bought my car. For those of you who don’t know the story Tim is British but lives in Sweden. He needed to tow a Mirror Dinghy from the North West back to Sweden but his own car had failed its Swedish MOT. So he decided to look for a tow car in the UK. When he saw my Citroen C5 Diesel on Ebay he rang me up to check it was in good order, we agreed a price and he flew over to London, came to my place and drove it away. He contacted me to let me know the car had been great. It had returned over 50mpg on the journey back to Sweden and was still going strong. So I was pleased to hear that too.
While I’d been in Berlin I’d suffered from blisters on my feet and I’d reached the conclusion that the trainers and sandals I’d brought with me just weren’t up to the job. So I asked the receptionist at the hostel for the location of a shopping centre and she marked three on the map. I went to find one of them, didn’t get any new shoes but found a nice cheap meal at a ‘quick serve’ type restaurant.These are handy places for a foreigner in a new city as they usually have a ‘point and ask’ type of picture menu. I went to one of the other centres and found the type of trainers I needed, with a nicely cushioned sole to deal with all the walking. Shopping centres can definitely be handy! I even found a nice pair of flip-flops to replace my sandals so I’d increased my comfort level while reducing weight and space. Couldn’t get the girl but managed to get some shoes. You take your wins where you can!
So now we’re all up to date with my domestic affairs, what about the city I was staying in?
Next day, on a lovely sunny morning I set out to explore Wraclow. It’s a big city and its attractions are spread out somewhat but it does have an Old Town area with some important cathedrals nearby. The first port of call though was the Botanical Gardens, which I hadn’t expected to be much of an attraction. There was an entrance fee to pay, which put me off a bit but I soon discovered I was wrong to be so negative. Initially the gardens didn’t seem up to much but as I progressed through them I found myself completely charmed. They are very nicely laid out and there is a lake, with fountains, in the middle. It is quite large and is surrounded by a walkway which has benches at intervals. These were clearly put there for a dual purpose. To sit on and rest of course, but each bench had a table in front of it which was designed to be used by artists who wanted to sketch or paint the lake and plants. What a great idea and plenty of people were using them for just that pleasure. I was now really enjoying my walk there and found many more areas laid out with different themes and plants to match. There were bridges, ponds, waterfalls, special areas dedicated to particular parts of the world and their plant life, special rose gardens – just about everything to please the gardening eye. Well worth the fee I paid in the end.

Sit and sketch the lake.

Sit and sketch the lake.

Very picturesque.

Very picturesque.

Walking from the gardens down towards the town I found a nice looking Gothic church. St Elizabeth’s, dating from the 14th century, is on the edge of the Old Town and was very nice inside, with an interesting altar piece. Why so interesting? Because, unlike all other religious artwork I’d seen up until then, this one showed Mary and Jesus with dark skin. Now I don’t know about you but I think that someone born of parents who lived in an area peopled by Arabs was pretty likely to look Arabic, i.e. have dark skin and similar features. My anthropological knowledge of Jewish tribes isn’t great but logic says that a few thousand years spent in the hot sun would mean dark skin. So why does all Western religious artwork portray everybody involved as white European? There must be a word or phrase to describe this phenomenon but I can’t think of it just now. These icons, for me, look like they represent the real people.

Altarpiece in St Elisabeth's.

Altarpiece in St Elisabeth’s.

St John's Cathedral from the Botanical Gardens.

St John’s Cathedral from the Botanical Gardens.

St. Elisabeth Tower.

St. Elisabeth Tower.

While I was there I climbed the tower – no surprise eh? Three hundred and two steps, and many of them with 8-10” risers, left me pretty knackered by the time I’d got to the top at over 90 metres.. Needless to say there was a great view over the town but it was rather spoiled by the unnecessary railings that prevented me from looking over down onto the streets immediately below. The wall was high enough anyway and the railings spoiled the experience for me.
The Old Town Square and surrounding buildings are mostly 16th century Renaissance and have been well preserved. They look great. One of the really good buildings is the Town Hall, which houses the Town Museum. It dates from Medieval times and is a lovely looking building. But it was closed as it was a Saturday. How daft not to open such a facility when the crowds are at their greatest. I’d have loved to have been able to see inside.

Gothic Old Town Hall.

Gothic Old Town Hall.

There was a real holiday atmosphere in the square with plenty going on and plenty of people to watch it. I don’t know if it was just the sunny Saturday or if there was something special happening but the stallholders were certainly kept busy.
There’s a Starbucks in the Old Town and I couldn’t resist the temptation to get a bucket of coffee instead of the small cups that most places sell. It was a really hot sunny day and sitting outside watching the world go by with her mini skirt and long legs has to be one of life’s great pleasures.
The main square was full of stalls selling food and souvenirs so it seemed the right thing to do to buy a Shashlik and sit up at one of the tables to eat it. It was the first one I’d ever had and was rather nice! Shalick is cooked on a skewer, like a Kebab and can be Lamb, Chicken, Duck or whatever.
The city guide mentions an area that still has some original Soviet style blocks of flats and I walked down to see them before going back to the hostel.They were, indeed, quite ugly but people live in them and I imagine they’re more concerned about lifts and heating bills than who designed and built them.

The Soviet style apartment block mentioned in the guide. Could easily be any part of London.

The Soviet style apartment block mentioned in the guide. Could easily be any part of London.

These are also Soviet era and were considered very avante guarde when they were built. I quite like them.

These are also Soviet era and were considered very avante guarde when they were built. I quite like them.

Back at the hostel I had an interesting conversation with the girl on reception. She is studying National Security, which is all about dealing with emergency situations in cities. When she’s finished she plans to go to Holland to work and eventually to Australia. I said that was a shame as Poland had plenty of work that needed doing and its young people ought to be there doing it. She said that there’s still too much of the old communist ways and it’s very difficult to get things done. That frustrates people like her so they go elsewhere. What a shame to hear that as there really is much to be put right in Poland, as I’ve noticed during my travels. More on that later.
Sunday dawned hot and sunny again and this time I headed out to a different part of the city to have a look at Szczynicki Park with its Japanese Gardens, Centennial Hall and the four domed Exhibition Centre. There is also a lake surrounded by a Pergola. In the middle of the lake is the Wroclaw Fountain, a multi media display of water, light and music, similar to the one in Torun. The Japanese Gardnes had fallen into disrepair but were refurbished in 1997 with the help of Japanese experts.This complex was designed and built to celebrate the centenary of the German king’s Frederick Willhelm III’s proclamation of the German Nation and the winning of the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. There is also a zoo nearby, Poland’s oldest and biggest but they don’t appeal to me very much.

Nicely laid out Japanese Gardens. Small, but beautifully formed.

Nicely laid out Japanese Gardens. Small, but beautifully formed.

Fountains in front of the Centennial Exhibition Centre.

Fountains in front of the Centennial Exhibition Centre.

After unexpectedly enjoying the Botanical Gardens yesterday I wasn’t sure what the Japanese Garden was going to do for me but I wasn’t disappointed. It’s nothing like as big but has the kind of layout and design I was used to seeing from Japanese artwork. Pretty little lakes and bridges and plenty of greenery.
The lake area is clearly designed for people to enjoy themselves in rather than to look at. Around the edge was plenty of room for families to sit and relax on the grassy banks or under the pergola and for kids to play. It looked to be a popular and well used facility.
Leaving there I took a long walk back towards the older part of the city and made my way to Ostrow Tumski by the Odra River. In the same way that Berlin has its Museum Island, this area, in amongst the canals of the river, is Wroclaw’s Cathedral Island. It has walkways and bridges providing access to the several churches and cathedrals that are sited there. St Martins is the oldest, and smallest, dating from the 12the century. The main city Cathedral is St Johns and you could probably fit three St Martins inside. I didn’t go in as there were services etc going on but it certainly looked impressive from the outside. There are a number of other churches close by, some of them also dating back to the 13th century.

The towers of St John's Cathedral.

The towers of St John’s Cathedral.

Much of Wraclow’s history is reflected in its churches. It had been, like Krakow, a Bohemian city until the Polish king took it over. However in the 14th century it became pert of Bohemia again and adopted the German version of its name, Breslau. Its Germanic population grew and it joined the Hanseatic League and used German Town Laws. It became increasingly independent of the rest of Silesia, of which it was capital. During the reformation and counter reformation the religious identity of the city changed and eventually it became, along with the rest of Silesia, part of the Hapsburg Empire. The city remained German until the end of WWII. In fact the German population outnumbered the Polish by more than ten times at that time. But at the Potsdam Conference it was agreed that most of Lower Silesia, including Breslau, would become part of the new Poland. Germans fled or were moved to Germany and Poles moved in to replace them. They had also been forced to move out of cities, such as Lviv in Ukraine, which became part of another country were they weren’t welcome. At the same time the city regained its old name. Over the centuries the churches and cathedrals also changed hands, from Catholic to Protestant and back to Catholic, around the same time as the city did. The city used to have a castle and fortifications but these were removed during the Napoleonic wars when the city became the centre for Prussian resistance. This act allowed the city space to grow and all that’s left of the castle is St Martin’s church.
A walk back down to the Town Square brought me back in close contact with stalls selling food and Starbucks selling coffee. I didn’t resist and sat reflecting on a pleasurable visit to Wroclaw and thinking about where to go next. I needed to head generally Eastwards and I concluded that Bialowieska National Park was the perfect answer.

Sculpture in the park

Sculpture in the park

Sculpture in the street.

Sculpture in the street.

Art on a wall.

Art on a wall.

Art with a purpose. Anti domestic violence message.

Art with a purpose. Anti domestic violence message.

Poland is very proud of Bialowieska National Park and rightly so. It was established in 1921 and is one of the last remaining sections of natural primeval forest in Europe. It managed to escape the ravages of development mostly because it was used by Polish kings for hunting. On pain of death, no-one was allowed to use it for anything. It spans the Polish/Belarus border, with the larger part lying in Belarus. Tourists are only allowed in with a guide and only in small groups. The authorities are clearly determined to protect this important area, home to many important species of flora and fauna, particularly fungi and birds.
One of the forests great success stories is the European Bison Breeding Centre and that was firmly on my list of places to visit. This is a great story of success as there are now over 600 bison living in the forest.
The ride there was going to be a longish one of around 650kms. So I was up early, packed and loaded by 07.30. And then, just as I was pulling away, one of those ‘Oh Bugger’ moments occurred. Because I’d had to leave the bike out on the street, albeit covered up, I’d wrapped a Pac-Safe cable and padlock around the rear wheel. So needless to say, partly because there was someone waiting to take my space, I pulled away forgetting it was there. SNAP! I looked down to see the padlock bent to hell, the cable broken and some of it wrapped around the rear hub. So I collected what bits I could, the length of cable that was wrapped around the hub wasn’t doing anything harmful so I carried on to the filling station just around the corner to fill up and sort it out. One cup of coffee and a snickers later, all was well and I set off for real.
I had a great ride, through increasingly nice countryside. The roads were a bit rough, as were the Layby Lovlies I saw en route. This road by passes Warsaw and is a busy lorry route although fortunately most of them were going the other way. The countryside became ever more rural with wooden houses becoming the norm and not many towns. It became common to see old folk sitting in the shade passing the time of day and I even saw a horse and cart loaded with some crops. A complete contrast to the western side of the country.
After nine hours riding, with a couple of short breaks, I reached the campsite I’d seen on the internet, about 3kms from the visitor centre. It was run by an old woman who spoke to me in German, but we got everything sorted out and she showed me a map which pinpointed the places I wanted to see. I’d booked in for two nights, giving me enough time to go to the visitor centre for the forest and the bison breeding centre too. There were a number of Germans on the site which explains the owner’s communication choice.
Next morning I walked down to the visitor centre and booked in to go round the exhibition. While I waited I went up the viewing tower which enabled me to see for some distance across the forest. I didn’t see much by way of animals but there’s certainly alot of trees out there!
The exhibition, with its audio guide, told the story of the forest, how it was used and managed and the animals to be found in there over the centuries. They used displays of model animals to show how they lived and how they interacted with each other and their surroundings. It included insects and birds as well as the expected deer, boars, wolves etc. There were light displays to match the audio too. Writing about it, it seems a bit naff, but it all worked very well and it was very educational.

Models of birds, displayed to great effect.

Models of birds, displayed to great effect.

Not the real thing, yet.

Not the real thing, yet.

Back to the campsite for lunch and then a short ride down to the Bison Centre. Here there were various enclosures containing not only Bison but also a Bison/Cow cross; Boars; Deer; Lynx. The aim is to ensure these species survive and to enable this ancient forest to be populated by the many of animals it always had been.

Some Bisonic information.

Some Bisonic information.

Here's the real thing. And I've decided you can't wash your hands in one.

Here’s the real thing. And I’ve decided you can’t wash your hands in one.

Peek-a-boo!

Peek-a-boo!

So that was Poland pretty much done and dusted. What were my impressions of the country and its people?
Pretty good on the whole. The country is quite big and has several major centres of both trade and history. The East and South are prettier than the North and West but that is because one is more rural and the other is more industrial. Generally the country is quite flat although there are mountains closer to Slovakia and Ukraine. Some parts of Poland look like they need a long session of repairing and making good. I’ve already mentioned how run down some of the smaller towns look around their periphery and some of their roads need plenty of repair work. The country is changing economically with the older industries, such as mining, declining while others are growing to take their place. Similar to Britain 20-30 years ago. Add in the recent recession and it’s easy to see why some areas struggle. But improvements are clearly under way with roads being upgraded and urban areas undergoing a building boom.
Poland has plenty to entertain and fascinate the visitor. I’ve probably been to less than half of what I could due to time restraints. The country has plenty of history to get your teeth into and several cities that enable you to dig into it. Torun and Krakow were my favourites in that respect. Its story is really quite a tragic one, especially the last two hundred years or so. Poland has only lived in peace within its own borders for a total of forty five years if you add up the post WW1 period and the post communist one. Prior to that it was split up between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Now the country, with its natural resources and varied industry has plenty to look forward to.
What of its people? Generally very likable and helpful. I found car park attendants always willing to find me a safe corner for my bike and happy to take charge of my crash helmet so I didn’t need to carry it around. The young people were always helpful and cheerful and I think it’s a tragedy if the opinion of the young receptionist is widespread. A country like Poland needs its clever youngsters.
But there is an exception to my good opinion of Poles and that is many of the older generation. Car park attendants excepted, far too many older people, who work in customer facing jobs, were either very abrupt or downright rude. I came across several who made it clear they just didn’t want to be there doing that. So I have a message for Poland’s youngsters – please teach your elders some manners! And please stick around long enough to do it.

4 thoughts on “Towers and Trees.

  1. David H says:

    Another fascinating piece, Geoff!

    I was interested in your comments about older Poles. We were in Bavaria for a fortnight recently and went to the Documentaion Centre in Nuremberg. Our guide explained that it took at least 20 years for the Germans to grasp that they had to reconsider their country’s behaviour in WW2, so this was something that was started by the generation that you and I belong to. Now it’s taken root, with schoolchildren actively taught about the crimes of their great-grandparents’ generation, with the majority of the country now thoroughly, and finally, de-Nazified.

    However, that older generation still wants to know nothing about it all and to pretend that it didn’t happen. This, like Poland’s seeming problem with more forward-facing attitudes, seems to be a problem that will only finally be solved ‘one funeral at a time’.

    • I was chatting to a young Pole here in the hostel I’m at and he was surprised by my comments. Maybe I was unlucky but it did stick out. Of course you’re right about time being the answer.

  2. Liz Rowland says:

    Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say Geoff. Good posting with not too much history for my poor ole brain! Keep on keeping on. I’m with my brother Down Under now – he’s keeping up to date with your travels too. I’ve even been on his bike. Not my cup of tea really, but will try again another day.

  3. Hi Liz. i hope you’re enjoying your stay in Aus. I’m very much looking forward to getting there next year. Well done for trying a bike ride. You never know, you may get to like it. Have fun.

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