Unlike the other countries we have cycled in, where we have ridden several hundred miles on a continuous journey, in Poland we camped in one location and rode in that area only. The area in question was a section of the Polish Lake District, (The Great Masurian Lakes) which is situated to the north east of the country. We stayed near to the town of Gizycko.
The occasion was the 2001 AIT cycle rally attended by about 1200 cyclists from around the world. Being CTC members we travelled with the Wearside group's organised party, which included members from other regions of the UK.
Before leaving the UK we tried to find out as much as possible about Poland, and were told that there were problems in the major cities with street crime, and heard tales of how people had been mugged while boarding a bus or on the train. We also learned that we should prepare for mosquitoes and other unsavoury flying bugs. We were pleased to learn from the UK government web site that "most journeys to Poland pass without incident."
Our destination was away from the centres of population however, and we hoped that we would not encounter the petty crime that had spoiled other people's trips. On arriving at our campsite we were told that three bicycles had been stolen and that we should be vigilant. On that first evening we attended the quaintly named "integration grilling" where generous quantities of food were served around a large open wood fire. As it turned out we were not the only creatures looking for sustenance that night, as the following morning most of us were covered with painful insect bites.
Fortunately, these first unpleasant experiences were not repeated. I don't think that any members of our party had any items stolen during our visit, while we quickly learned to treat all exposed skin with anti insect creams.
The weather was very hot and humid when we arrived, I would guess in the 30s. The following day there was a tremendous thunderstorm accompanied by torrential rain - we were staying in the Lake District! We had just returned from a ride and I was in the tent and Carol in the showers when the heavens opened. I was fascinated by the storm, but convinced that the tent could not possibly remain standing - it did. After the storm the temperature dropped to a more comfortable level in the mid twenties, and remained there for most of the time we were in Poland, although we did get rained upon once or twice.
We later met a French couple who were attending the Rally. They had flown into Warsaw only to find that their bikes had not arrived with the remainder of the luggage. They had to stay a night in that city before their cycles were restored to them the following day. The final part of their journey was to be by train from Warsaw to Gizycko, but the train was halted due to trees being blown down over the tracks in that same storm that we had encountered. They had to push their bikes along the railway tracks to the next station.
The facilities at the campsite were primitive. We pitched our tents on a very sandy football pitch, somewhere near to the centre spot, while the goal posts proved to be useful places to dry clothes. There were showers and flush toilets, and they were kept clean, but they were few in number, insufficient for the quantity of people involved. The shower in the Gents provoked a great deal of debate, only a minority of people actually managed to extract a flow of hot water from the nozzle, but the fact that it seemed to be possible encouraged us all to keep trying.
After a couple of days some portable loos appeared on the scene, improving the person to bog ratio somewhat.
Adjacent to our campsite was a large lake and the temperature of the clear water was just right for swimming.
Returning to the subject of law and order, we attended a folk concert in Gizycko, and were surprised to find that the event was patrolled by a large number of armed security guards. They searched our bike bags as we went in. The music was entertaining and we didn't see a bit of trouble, perhaps because of the presence of the guards. I was a little bit surprised to find that the crowd received a Russian folk group most enthusiastically. When you look at the map you can see that the Russian border is not far away.
On another occasion we decided to take a ride in the train, and there was an armed guard on board. Again our trip was trouble free - I guess that the authorities are determined to ensure that tourists are not robbed and do what is necessary to prevent it.
Polish train travel was interesting, there were clean but retired steam locomotives stood around the station in Elk, while tall grass grew between the tracks beneath the electric loco hauling the Warsaw Express. The station at Gizyncko had an abandoned look to it, desperately in neeed of a coat of paint, with the main doors barred. Once inside, through a side entrance, there was a computerised ticketing system in use, while the whole was protected by a stern looking militia man with an automatic pistol. Our train stopped at one rural station whose grass covered platform was host to a small herd of tethered cows. One thing, our venerable diesel powered train ran on time!
We attempted to hire a sailing boat but found that they were pitched at the top end of the market, quality yachts but expensive, while they were geared up for a hire period of a week or more. We eventually found somebody prepared to hire a sailing dinghy for an afternoon and had an enjoyable few hours pottering about on the lake in a benign force 3 and plenty of sunshine.
Food was cheap and good with the locally caught freshwater fish particularly fine. It was possible to buy a meal for four, including a round of beers, for about £10. We had brought a full range of cooking equipment, but it was hardly used. The market proved to be an interesting place, engineering milling cutters nestled alongside a good variety of fruit and veg. The cherries were really nice, we ate far too many of them.
There appears to be a short but frenzied growing season. Banks of tall hollyhocks in all shades of pink and red were a feature in some villages.
We asked what the weather was like in the winter. One guy grimaced and said that the lake froze solid to a depth of about half a metre, while somebody else said that they could not remember the last bad winter!
The area around Gizycko is being rapidly developed as a tourist destination. While there are communist era concrete blocks of flats, there are also attractive houses. New hotels are springing up to accommodate the wealthy Germans arriving in their air-conditioned luxury coaches and cars. It was interesting to observe that the earlier corrugated steel roofing had given way to pan tiles on the more recent buildings.
There are permanent way marked cycle routes in the area around Gizycko, while there is a cycle track alongside the main street in town, which boasted three cycle shops.
We looked into two of the shops. In one the assistants did not seem to be interested in serving us. We were ignored while they chatted to another customer. The other was much friendlier, we asked if we could buy a cycle cape on display when they insisted on showing us their entire range. We eventually bought mid price capes for a very reasonable £9 each. Another member of our party asked if they could strip down and clean his freewheel mechanism and this was done efficiently and economically.
Some of the many footbridges across the canals were equipped with cycle friendly tracks.
The roads in this part of Poland are all single carriageway and the more important of them are very heavily used. We found that Polish drivers were generally more considerate to cyclists than those in the UK, but they do drive fast, given the circumstances, and we did not feel safe on some of the busier roads. While much of the traffic was comprised of modern vehicles that you see anywhere, there was a relatively high proportion of smoky old trucks damaging the air.
I made the mistake of
watching the road ahead on our return journey in our Polish
coach. While both of our drivers were careful to give us a smooth
and comfortable ride, at times they would pull out to overtake
when there were vehicles coming directly towards us. Somehow,
miraculously, the traffic would part to allow us through.
We had mixed experiences cycling on the minor roads. At best they are very good indeed with a reasonable surface and empty of traffic. They wander through a gently undulating rural landscape that can't have changed much in the past 100 years. There are farms, small houses, churches, religious shrines, fields of wild flowers, and many lakes. Some roads are lined with sweetly scented Lime trees. Storks are frequently seen either in flight or nesting above barns, while large birds of prey occasionally hover overhead. These are idyllic cycling conditions!
Many of the minor roads have poor quality road surfaces however, while it is not uncommon for the metalled surface to give way to sand, or coarse cobbles. Sand is difficult to ride through, much of the time the surface is compacted, but then you come across some loose stuff and the bike slides out of control. It's a bit like riding on ice.
One "attraction" is Hitler's lair, largely destroyed on his departure, but reached via several kilometres of cobbled road surface. The cobbles jar every bone in your body not to mention the effect on your bike. One member of our party had his bike's rear dropout crack some time after this, while we heard various tales of mechanical woe from other groups, including an aluminium framed bike that had come apart at the joints!
Note the fella in the photo riding at the very edge of the road to avoid the cobbles!
Quite a number of the people attending the AIT rally were used to something quite different and had turned up on narrow tyred racing or Audax style bikes. They were not at all happy with the conditions, but we cycle tourists were better prepared and enjoyed most of the rides.
A mountain bike, or a wide tyred roadster, would be the best choice perhaps.
I managed to lose my cycling jacket. It was attached to the carrier by means of a shock cord, but the rattling over the cobbles must have dislodged it. I tried to claim for the loss from my house insurance (the Prudential) but they would not accept the liability stating that I should have reported the loss to the police. (Foreign country, don't speak the language, trivial incident, out in the styx - get real!) Fortunately I also had separate travel insurance with Norwich Union and they did pay up after accepting the evidence of others within the group. There are two lessons here, do try to get a receipt from the police if you lose something, and don't insure with the Pru!
There was generally somewhere open to buy
lunch, even if some of the places looked a tad unwelcoming from
the outside - possibly no shop window, a door leading into a
gloomy interior. A few enterprising people had opened little
cafes. These places were generally thoroughly modern and could
have been situated anywhere in Europe, except that that prices
were so low. We sheltered from the rain in one cafe where we met
a couple of young women who were also cycling. One of them spoke
perfect English, indeed I was surprised to learn that she was
Polish, coming from Gdansk. There is a healthy following for
cycle touring in Poland, with an environmental lobby pushing for
better provision for cyclists. Of the 1200 or so people attending
the AIT rally, just over half that number were Polish.
A network of canals
connects the lakes, and regular ferries serve the communities
around the lakes. It is therefore possible to ride to a
destination, enjoy a relaxed beer or two, and then take the ferry
back. The photographs show some of the new development that is
taking place at Mikolajki, picture postcard buildings to cater
for the tourist trade.
We did not really know what to expect from Poland, and were prepared to right it off as an experience rather than a conventional holiday.
We were pleasantly surprised in a number of ways. The weather was warm enough to eat out on an evening and swim in the lakes, the food was good and excellent value for money, while the scenery, if not spectacular, was pleasant and unspoilt. Most of the people we came into contact with were friendly and helpful, although only a small minority spoke any English and we found the Polish language to be impenetrable. Quite a few people spoke German. The streets and facilities were commendably clean and tidy, much better than the UK in that respect.
If you have not travelled with a CTC party (as we had not) I would recommend this type of trip. You find yourself amongst like minded people whose company and humour you will enjoy, while it is always possible to break away from the group, if you want to.
below shows some of our party sheltering from a rainstorm, wet
It was a long, long, way to go (the group had hired a coach and trailer and we had travelled from Ijmuiden to Gizycko - a 24 hour trip) and I don't think that I will be tempted to return to Poland under the same circumstances. Maybe when I am too old to cycle but can afford the airfare, who knows.
Negatives re-scanned 8-10-2008 Pentax, Kodak Gold
200. Epson 4990 scanner.
If you would
like to ask any questions about this article, feel free to get in
touch with Bryan