Frankfurt, GR to Dobrzyca, PL
June 2 to June 30, 1999
25,645 miles (41,363 km) cumulative
The border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there, everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers. The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes that the women of the border will be more beautiful and complacent than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveler expects the death he never finds. The atmosphere of the border - it is like starting over again; there is something about it like a good confession: poised for a few happy moments between sin and sin.
I stand at the door to the aircraft behind the inevitable line that forms as passengers lug their exaggerated regulation sized carry-ons to their seats. I think about our future travels and the difference there will be from the past four years. Different cultures, languages, currencies, food, roads, geography, and borders, many many borders, awaited our arrival. I was ecstatic. Thirty-six hours, one rerouted then canceled flight, one delayed and one missed flight, one night of cat naps behind the check-in counter of gate C11 in Chicago O-Hara airport and one long 9 hour flight and we were there. Too tired to think about putting the bikes together, we checked into our hotel and slept. It was a rough start to what will hopefully turn into a grand adventure.
Frankfurt is located on the shores of one of Germany's main transportation rivers, the Main (Pronounced Mine). Due to its strategic location and commercial importance it's one of those European cities that has undergone many cycles of being blown to bits in war and then rebuilt from the ashes. The last cycle was W.W.II. Consequently there are few of the ancient buildings remaining to see. Since we had flown into Frankfurt for one and only one reason, it's one of the cheapest airports to fly into from the US, we decided to forego any sightseeing for now at least. Our bike guide book recommended taking the train east to the town of Ascheffenburg, about 50 km to the east. But, upon some quick investigation we discovered that there is a bike path along the river that goes the entire distance to that town and far beyond. Germans are avid bike riders, so it didn't surprise us. We promptly chose to forget much of what our bike book said and blaze our own trail.
Upon returning to our hotel, we began the long process of getting the bikes reassembled. We started this trip with an entirely new bike and baggage concept. After careful consideration of several suitcase transportable bike options we finally settled on a normal sized bike that includes couplers which allow the bike frame to be split into two sections. We had Bilenky Cycle Works in Pennsylvania make up two new mountain bikes with couplers. While they were at it we had them create a trailer that would be used to tow the hardsided suitcase behind. Unfortunately, the bikes arrived a mere 1 1/2 weeks before our departure from Portland. So we had just barely enough time to try assembling the bikes and trailer one time each. We were in no way well practiced to get them together in a speedy time. Add to this a tire pump that decided to gasp its last breath right at that moment and you had the formula for one long, long night. It took about 4 hours, until 2 AM, for us to get it all done. Next time we should be a whole lot faster, I hope.
There are few cities in this world where riding a bike into or out of the city center can be labeled easy. Frankfurt happens to be one. Striking out eastward along the Main bike path (Maintal Radwanderweg) we completely avoided all traffic, motor vehicle traffic that is. We did encounter hundreds of bikers. Bikers of all ages with bikes ranging from your standard city cruiser to your slick road racer use the trail. Groups, couples, and singles were either out for a day ride or the weekend. Many carried saddle bags on their rear rack. Amazing little bags they looked more like fancy luggage than the backpack style panniers we've seen in the US. They have neat, squared-off suitcases on either side of the wheel and a small perfect suitcase on the top. They were plain or multicolored in a vast array of patterns and often sported fancy little clasps you see on finer luggage. What surprised us the most was the fact that the the majority of the couples on the trail were older, pensioners in fact. They pack up their suitcase saddlebags, ride perhaps 50 km or so, spend the night in a gasthaus, and return the next day. It's no big deal to them. Here we were in just in the very start of summer weather and yet we passed several of these golden aged groups each and every day. We hear July and August can produce downright traffic jams of bikers along the routes.
Like a dribble of water snaking its way along a flat plate, the Main wiggles back and forth through the hills of the Bavarian countryside. At Wertheim we headed north for 50 km only to turn 180 degrees to head south for another 50 km to Wurzburg. We could have cut the distance in half by cutting off the loop, but there was little to persuade us to do this. Having a separate bike path the entire way made for idealistic, traffic free cycling nirvana. The towns were picture perfect Bavarian style filled with the wood and stucco facades we so often associate with European mountain towns. There were campsites unbelievably conveniently spaced and plenty of supermarkets and restaurants. And it was impossible to keep our eyes off the pretty rolling hills covered with dense forests or vineyards that seem to climb vertically up their sides. Just think of the exercise you'd get climbing up and down those hill sides tending to your grapes. Castles where knights once diligently guarded their section of the river still stand perched on rocky outcrops at strategic bends in the river. Armor bedecked knights, lances at the ready, have been replaced by gaudily dressed tourists, cameras and guide books at the ready. Onion dome topped churches grace each and every town. And row upon row of skinny 3 and 4 story townhouses hedge up against the narrow streets or squeeze in-between the river and the surrounding hillside. Idyllic Bavarian countryside at it's best.
The river was a delight to watch. Each day something new would pass by. At Frankfurt, where the river is wide, barges at least a football field in length and 20 ft wide puttered up river or glided down. They carried coal, sand, big pieces of machinery, anything too large and bulky to take via truck or rail. Massive bathtubs filled with goods were somehow coaxed along by the force of sputtering engines buried deep underneath. At the stern, or was it the bow, a single story flat roofed house sits overlooking the vats. It's usually painted white to contrast with the black or gray of the tubs. Curtains and flowers in the cabin port holes and the occasional car strapped to the roof attest to the captain, crew, and perhaps a wife and family that live onboard. Imagine growing up a child of the river, a roamer whose home is in continual motion either upstream or down. The river must become more familiar to you than your own mother's face.
Occasionally a grand river cruise ship passed by. We could see in the windows elegant tables festooned with white table cloths, floral center pieces, and candles sticks. Yet the number of passengers seemed remarkably small. Only a few dozen sat at the windows or out on deck watching the hills pass by. It was only June, so perhaps there will be more passengers later in the month. I had to wonder just at what point they decide there simply are not enough people to make the trip financially worthwhile. There were also smaller private pleasure boats, motor driven of course, and even a canoe or two. And what is it about a lock, a simple contraption of gates and walls, that's oh so fascinating to an engineer. We must have passed at least 20 on our upriver journey and each one beckoned for us to take a closer look.
Our trip up the Maintal Radweg zigzagged us to the town of Bamberg. As we approached from the west we could see the church spires in the distance. But we had lost the tell-tale green MR signs that showed the way along the bike route several towns earlier. Somehow we had wound up on the wrong side of the river and city. Completely befuddled as to how to get to the campingplatz we pointed our bikes in what we thought to be the right direction and started making our way through rush hour traffic. At one corner, when we had stopped to consult our map and compass, up rode Jenis, pronounced Yenz, a man in his thirties who happened to speak reasonably good English, who happened to be passing our way, who happened to be a bike tourist, and who happened to know how to get to the campingplatz. Shear luck and coincidence. A few good directions, one map, and a half hour easy ride and we were there.
Later that evening we sat in our Thermarest chairs trying to coax up appetites for a pathetic excuse of a spaghetti dinner when out of nowhere Jenis once again appeared bearing an offer that was far too good to refuse, dinner and drinks at a local biergarten. Before too long we found ourselves seated at bench tables under the Christmas lighted trees drinking a good mug of local brew and chowing down on hunger pleasing dark rye bread, various sliced meats, sausages, cheese, and kraut. Brian ate the kraut because I don't care if it's been krauted, kimchied, slawed, or pickled, I do not like cabbage. Our host, Jenis, was great company. Formerly of East Germany he gave us a very brief view of how it felt to finally shake off the Soviet empire. In school he learned little about the US and the west except for climate and that we were considered the enemy. Now it almost seems the reverse. They are quite glad to be out from under Russian rule. He couldn't travel to the west before, now he wants to see all of the unified Germany, by bicycle. He's picked up the German travel bug. Maybe even someday he'll travel to the US, after his 3 kids are grown that is. How life does change with major swings in political winds.
Just a note on biergartens. Back in olden times beer was typically brewed and stored either in the mountains, in caves, or in gardens under trees where it could be kept cool. At the end of the work day the brewery workers would gather in the gardens under the trees and enjoy a drink or two before heading home. Over time these informal gathering places became institutions. Now everywhere you turn there are folding tables and chairs scattered in gardens under the trees and for a reasonable fee you can get a cold brew, snacks, and pleasant company. So now you know the origin of the great German tradition, the biergarten.
Due to its variety of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque churches and palaces, block after block of closely spaced half-timbered townhouses, lovely formal rose gardens, and interesting old town hall built smack in the middle of the river; Bamberg is considered to be the gem of the Main even though it actually straddles the Regnitz river. Surprises to delight the senses can be found around each corner or tucked away in some hidden niche. You can partake of one of many museums, take mid-afternoon snacks and coffee in the pedestrian zone, find necessities in the many shops, or just relax and people watch. We took the long walking tour that introduced us to the many churches perched on the hills overlooking the town. It was particularly interesting to watch some of the restoration work in progress. Murals on the old town hall were draped over with canvas painted to represent the murals. Workers under the canvas were busily repairing the real thing. One of the many buildings that had been built literally with its foundation in the river was being restored. To keep the river out they had erected a metal water barrier. I couldn't imagine what a mess it'd be if suddenly the wall gave way. We also did some shopping, taking care of a few odds and ends of items we decided were just not working quite right. This new biking concept is taking some work to get just the way we want.
After 2 days in Bamberg we were off again, finally within a few days of where we really wanted to be, eastern Europe. We were able to continue getting our poorly condition legs into shape along the flat Main river valley for another 2 days before having to cut straight across the hills from the town of Bar Berenk and Gefrees. From here on we would finally learn how well we can handle the additional weight of the new trailer concept in the hills.
Up and down rolling hills that reminded us of the hills of Ohio, riding past small villages that bring memories of New England, we at last came to the Czech Republic border crossing. I'm not entirely sure what I expected. Perhaps burly border guards gingerly shouldering soviet M16 equivalent machine guns and glaring suspiciously at your face and passport One wrong move and "kablam".. Or maybe a run down wooden shack with an ancient 1950's style clackity typewriter being viscously battered by some chubby babushka woman dressed in black, her hair in a severe bun. Her chiseled face gives you a challenging, "You want me to do what?" look. Or maybe just some frail old man who lifts a red and white striped bar as you stare ahead onto a road that is little more than two ruts cut into the field of grass. I have seen a few too many old cold war movies. I was suddenly reminded that the wall did, in fact, come crashing down a full ten years ago and since then the Czech Republic has been westernizing with a vengeance. There was a new, modern border building where a nice uniformed border agent took one look at just Brian's passport and waved us on. The road that had been narrow on the German side now became a wide highway, smooth and clean. There were even two brand new ESSO gas stations complete with mini markets just a few meters beyond the border. I would have to say the Czech Republic has come a long way in just 10 years.
More surprises awaited us as we entered the town of Cheb. On the outskirts we encountered some of those horridly ugly faceless towers the Soviets built as apartments. They were just block towers with a few windows and one patio for each apartment. They were painted a hideous drab olive green and even more drab red brick. I noticed that one tenant, probably in an attempt to restore his sanity, painted his own patio area a bright ivory. As I looked at this awful sight I was reminded of the projects in Manhatten. They were just as ugly, just as stifling. I simply could not fathom why anyone would ever think that providing people with such awful accommodations would do anything to inspire them to great achievements in art, literature science, technology, or even just everyday life. Brian labeled them "people warehouses" which is basically what they are.
But not all is so drab, dreary, or rundown. In the past 10 years Cheb has been busy giving itself a facelift, at least in the main downtown pedestrian zone. Looking around the large open square we could easily see that most of the old buildings had recently undergone a complete sprucing up. New paint, new stucco, new windows and repaired decor were evident everywhere. Two buildings, in fact, were currently covered in scaffolding getting their make over. All of the buildings sported new shops and restaurants. I was amazed with all the western logos displayed in the windows. Nike, Sony, Kodak, you name it and you'll find it.
The square was far from being the most amazing sight we encountered. As we headed out of town toward the campground we kept our eyes out for a grocery store. Just blocks from the center we found a huge warehouse market called Kaufland. It was a huge Czech version of K-Mart, Wal-Mart, or even Price Club. The building was easily 30,000 sq. ft in size and inside it was jammed from floor to ceiling with food, sundries, clothes, kitchen gadgets, etc. It was also jammed with people, people who were buying things not just looking. A mere ten years ago western goods were virtually unheard of in the eastern block. Eight years ago when our bike book was written store shelves had some western goods carefully lined up on the shelves and the number of customers was strictly controlled by the number of available carts. You had to have a cart in hand to enter the store. Now, western consumerism has taken off like wildfire. How would it feel to be an older Czech citizen, suddenly going from having nothing available in the stores to this vast variety of goods. I will never know.
One thing to recall is that the history of Czech is actually the history of a region. All countries of Central Europe have been linked since their beginning. At various times it has been ruled by or has ruled over parts of Austria, Germany, Slovakia, Russia, Luxembourg, etc. Prague was even the seat of a holy Roman Empire bishropric at one point. Prague, or Praha as the Czechs call it, was the most important political center of central Europe up until W.W.I.
Known history of the Czech region began back in the beginning of the 4th century when the region was settled by the Celts. This is a bit of a surprise as I thought the Celts were in Wales. In the 5th and 6th centuries the Slavs settled in the Moravia and Bohemia area during a period called the Great Migration of Peoples. I get the impression there was a great restlessness throughout Europe and I can't help but wonder why; climate changes, war, oppressive governments? Sometime in the 9th century Christianity showed up later followed by a Protestant religion called Hussite. This, of course, eventually resulted in a Hussite revolution and a 30 year long war, but that was later.
Soon the region went through long series of ruling dynasties. The Moravian empire gave way to the Premyslid Dynasty at the end of the 9th century. Then came the Luxemburg Dynasty in 1310, the Jagellon Dynasty in 1471 (after the Hussite revolution from 1419 to 1436), and finally the Habsburg Dynasty in 1526 (after the 30 years war from 1618 to 1648). What I find most amazing is the Habsburg Dynasty lasted until 1918, in other words right up to W.W.I. One always thinks of feudal governing systems as existing only in the middle ages. Yet they actually survived right into the 20th century. It was the ravages of W.W.I that finally brought the majority of the European ruling families down and ushered in the age of democratic and communistic regimes.
Then came war. W.W.I resulted in the removal of the Habsburgs and the beginning of an independent Czechoslovak country with their very first president, Tomas Garigue Masaryk. This short lived country was swallowed up by Hitler's Germany in 1939 when part of the Bohemia and Moravia region was given over by France and Britian in the infamous Munich Pact of September 1938 and the rest simply taken by Hitler in March 1939. Toward the end of the war the west Bohemia region was liberated by Allied forces and the rest by Soviet forces.
In moved the Soviets. In April 1945, even before the entire country had been liberated, the Soviets prepared a plan for reconstruction of the country which essentially meant a Communist take-over. In 1948 the remaining Social Democratic party withdrew from the political coalition in protest of the Communistic antidemocratic activities. This act paved the way for a Communist 'February coup d'etat'. A dictatorship and communistic form of constitution and voting system was set in place, industries were nationalized, and economic policies that nearly bankrupted the country were set in place.
The 1950s saw years of harsh repression. Non-communists were imprisoned, hundreds executed or sent to labor camps, and thousands fled the country. Even the attempts of first secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, to institute more humane policies were met with a totalitarian response. On September 20, 1968, 200,000 Soviet and Warsaw Pact soldiers moved in and the dictatorship was renewed. But it was not to last. In 1989 Gorbachev's perestroika program and the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November raised expectations that soon major changes would be seen. On Friday, November 17, 1989 an officially sanctioned student march in memory of students executed by the Nazis in 1939 was ruthlessly broken up by Soviet troops. The very next day 250,000 people gathered in Wenceslas Square to protest. These protests quickly widened culminating to a general statewide strike on 27 November 1989. The communist party fell and what is now called the 'velvet revolution' was over. Just think, that one day began what is probably one of the most amazing transformations of any society ever seen in history.
In the 10 years since that date the country has undergone a rapid shift from a government based economy to private economy. Houses and individual properties were turned back to the original owners where possible, companies were privatized and Czechs were given rights to buy shares in these newly formed ventures, and foreign businesses and investors were eagerly recruited to bring their business. The only real earth shattering event was the separation of the Czech and Slovak republics in 1993. The two countries are composed of peoples from different backgrounds and cultures and who speak different languages. Slovak is primarily a rural state whereas Czech is far more western and cosmopolitan. Hence their views on how to proceed into the market economy were quite different. In 1993 they decided to split and go their separate ways, which is why we now have Czech and Slovak republics and not a Czechoslovakia. This separation is now referred to as the "velvet divorce."
Our first real sightseeing stop within the Czech Rep. was the old world spa town of Marianska Lazne (Marianbad). Folks in Czech seem to treasure these old hot spring and mineral water spots as their tourist brochures go on and on about the benefits of each and every one. Each spring is supposed to treat, you'll note they never say cure, some specific ailment or another. In the US we've generally given up on the idea that certain types of spring water can cure anything from the common cold to gout. Our focus seems to be on the use of warm water baths for rehabilitation for surgery or physical injuries. But not so in the Czech republic. They are still convinced that a bit of natural water and some baths can treat heart ailments, respiratory problems, gynecological troubles and even some mental disorders. Then again, perhaps there is something to be said for the relaxing effects of a nice hot soak in a bath.
The town of Marianbad reflects the era of opulent partaking of the waters. The main street leads from the modern shopping district where locals conduct their daily affairs up the hill to a street lined with some of the most amazingly decorated and often garish old spa buildings. By garish I refer to huge spa hotels covered in naked cherub or women statues. Some seemed more subdued than others. The street was divided through the middle by a green garden, used for walking to help with your spa treatment. At the end and up on a hill was a grand old colonnade, a long roofed but open air terrace with a fancy and expensive restaurant on one end. The other half of the colonnade was under renovation. In fact, we noticed that many buildings were covered with scaffolding and tarps undergoing complete face lifts. You could distinctly tell those buildings that had already received their make-overs and those that hadn't.
It was crowded. Tourists jammed the streets, wandering up and down the colonnade or passing by the opulent spa buildings peering in the store windows that seemed to carry mostly samples of Bohemian crystal and ceramics. I noticed a lot of people were carrying these little cups curiously sucking on this odd extension of the handle. It was a straw and they were drinking in the famous spa mineral waters. Finding one of the many flowing faucets I cupped my hands and took a sip. Yuck! Give me pure clean tasteless spring water any day. We found the relative ages of the tourists rather depressing. If I had to estimate I'd say only 1 in every 99 people were under age 60 and there were certainly a lot of folks sporting canes and other walking aids. All here for the treatments I suppose. We found the whole affair far too touristy for our liking and just spent half a day admiring the buildings before we headed on.
We couldn't help but contrast the economies of Mexico with that of the Czech republic. Both countries would be considered to be developing nations. Yet it seems to us that in the long run the Czechs will eventually be far more successful. The reason is, in Mexico the majority of things that are made or built are made to be just barely good enough. It is rare to find something that is done completely right. For example, concrete is used everywhere in Mexico. Yet the majority of concrete structures seem to last only a couple short years before they start deteriorating. The top layers peel off, the sand starts flaking out, and within a short time the structure is falling apart. Yet you look at similar concrete structures in the US, Canada, or Europe and even after over 50 years they're usually still in very good conditions. Only the beginning of cracks and flaking showing. We asked a construction engineer about it and he told us that the Mexicans simply do not take the time necessary to make a proper pour. They don't mix it right, don't smooth it right, don't tamp it right. Instead they do it cheap, fast, and just good enough. So what if three years later it's falling apart. This attitude is seen in every industry in Mexico and we believe that as long as their public is willing to accept this as status quo then the economy in Mexico will forever suffer accordingly.
In the Czech republic, on the other hand, buildings, roads, and other major construction works may have seen years of neglect under the communist regime. But now that the country is moving to bring itself into the year 2000 along with the rest of the west, the construction and maintenance they are doing appears to be first rate. You won't see this concrete fall apart after a mere few years. It's a completely different philosophy, but one that we feel will be more successful in the long term.
Prague, is actually called Praha by the locals with the h being almost silent. How in the world we ever came up with Prague I'll never know. Prior to W.W.I Praha was truly a major seat of government, religion, and the arts for all central Europe and you can see it in the buildings. They are absolutely glorious and there's so many. Each and every street is lined with architects' dreams set in stone. We came to see these buildings, so well preserved since they never received the full impact of W.W.II bombing. Unfortunately, the years of Soviet domination still show. Little seems to have been spent on maintenance and now that freedom has been obtained a lot of work is required to bring the buildings back to their former splendor. I was particularly appalled by the effects of air pollution. So many buildings and statues are virtually covered with a black, gummy looking sludge, a sludge that would require a severe sand blasting to remove. Nearly all of the 37 statues that line the famous St. Charles bridge look like creepy black monsters frozen in space and time. It's not till you look close that you can make out such characters as the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus or perhaps St. Wenceslas. One statue had been either cleaned or replaced and looked essentially white compared to the others. Another was under scaffolding and tarps, perhaps the beginnings of a cleaning and renovation program. In any event I should think the city officials would be very interested in getting all statues cleaned and polished as the bridge is one of the major tourist draws of the entire city.
It cost just 140 Kc to see the 5 selected sights of the Praha palace complex; St. Vitus cathedral, the cathedral tower, St George's cathedral, the old Royal palace, and the old powder tower. Yet, apart from the cathedral, we were a bit disappointed with the palace. It didn't appear at all like a castle. In fact the buildings looked more like stone government offices. The cathedral with its ornate bristle cone French gothic architecture actually looks completely out of place in its position amid these blocky stone looking buildings. But, as with many old fortification sites of the old world, the palace is simply a conglomeration of centuries of add-ons. It began sometime back in the 8th or 9th century as a fort of a few wooden and stucco buildings surrounded by a log palisade. Sometime around the 10th century the wood was replaced by stone and the start of the cathedral was placed. The greatest contributions came from king Rudolf II, a guy that evidently was a little nutty at times. The art of the castle reached its peak during his reign as he collected more than 500 pieces of art and sculpture. I read a bit about the artists he had in his employ and I wondered about the staffing requirements for a king. He's got his household staff; maids, cooks, doormen; his army of knights, people to attend his stables, accountants, laundresses, hand maidens and butlers, plus an entire entourage of painters, sculptors, writers, and even a whole orchestra. No wonder he had to charge the serfs such high taxes.
We spent most of our days in the city just wandering. There were plenty of museums we could have visited, museums of history, modern art, military goods, technology, even a toy museum. But we chose to just see the outside, buildings, streets, and the parks. It's summer and we hate to waste what little good weather there might be on being indoors. I was truly amazed at just how much restoration has been accomplished so quickly. Ten years just seems too brief to permit the level of transformation and development we saw. Yet building after building had been or was being renovated, western style stores carrying a plentiful supply of western goods fill the downstairs floors while the upper floors are converted into luxury apartments that are sold to private owners. The old joke of long lines for two little rolls of toilet paper no longer applies. You can find absolutely anything you want and find it at good prices as well. Brian was ecstatic to discover cans of American style pork and beans from the USA Krogers supermarket chain in the basement of the Tesco market.
Unfortunately they have also inherited many of the western ills as well. Graffiti is everywhere and crime, while still not as bad as the western countries, is on the rise. Pickpocketing in the tourist areas is a major problem and we had to take all the precautions we used in Mexico DF, carry only enough cash for the day and our ID. The campground manager was kind enough to lock our bikes in a closet as theft from the campground was also not uncommon. In fact a couple from the Netherlands had their RV broken into and some money taken while we were there. We, fortunately, did not experience any theft even after being all over the city for 5 days.
Upon leaving Prague we headed around the city toward the northwest and then continued on around to the northeast. Hills in the region north of the city were significantly smaller and gentler than those we'd encountered to the west. I also noticed that the state of the towns and villages seemed to decline the further east we went. No longer were there the signs of reconstruction so evident further west. Beautiful old buildings looking woefully tired lined the streets of each town. Evidence of the odd former Soviet rigid society appeared in the strangest places. In one grocery store the woman seemed quite put upon when we appeared at the checkout counter bearing one bottle of soda, one package of sliced turkey, and one box of cookies. No cart. We were supposed to have a cart. People were still quite friendly and very, very curious about our one wheel trailers. Time and again folks came up and started yammering in German or Czech, all the while pointing at our trailers. We definitely concluded that we need to learn some German if we wish to spend more time in this region.
Between Poland and the Czech republic along the most southwestern edge lie a section of the Sudetten mountains. Peaks are around 5000 ft so they're not particularly high. But as we seemed to be starting very near sea level it was a good long climb to get over.. Several roads run up into the mountains and a few even cross over into Poland. They're not a particularly wide mountain range, just 2 days riding across, but the first day consisted entirely of climbs, three long, more than 1000 ft each, climbs. It was beautiful, quiet, mountainous country side, babbling brooks lined the roadway, cultivated fields are seen in the valley beyond. Only the towns in the foothills were not much to see. Many are old mill and mining towns, some still have belching smoke and downright stink. The best town is a small tourist town on the Czech side, right at the top of the mountains, a mere 4 km from the Polish border, Harrachov. It consists mostly of small hotels and pensions, one small grocery store, a gas station, campground, and a few tourist shops. It reminded me a lot of some of the southern California mountain towns, Julian or Idylwild for example, but with far fewer people and not quite in such a "perfect" condition. It seems to be a favorite vacation spot for Germans and the Dutch as there are lots of hiking and biking opportunities throughout the hills.
"Vun owa down" the Polish border guard proclaimed when I queried, "Down?". Amid gawking stares we checked in, mounted up, and pushed onward for the final km of climb looking forward to a long down hill, an end to the mountains, and our first exposure to Poland. From all accounts we expected to see a country that is several years behind the Czech Republic in its race toward westernization. People had warned us of theft problems. "Keep everything in your tent", one fellow from the Netherlands said. Yet we had to wonder if it wasn't the usual situation we encounter so often. People always say it's dangerous "over there" yet when you arrive "there" you find people just as friendly as "here." How mistrustful we humans are.
It's amazing that Poland exists at all. The geography of the country has played as important a role in its history as all the kings, emperors, czars, frurers, and presidents combined. To the south are the Sudetten and Tatry mountains which provide a defensive border between Poland and the current countries of Czech and Slovakia Republics. But to the north is just the huge northern European plain, a vast region scraped flat as a pancake by the last continental ice age, leaving Poland with no natural defenses to either the east or the west. Consequently over its history its borders have shifted back and forth across the plains. The country even disappeared completely at one point.
Poland's national identity started to come into existence in the 10th century in the region called Wielkopolska, sort of in the north central part. At this time the Polanian tribe gained dominance over the surrounding Slavic groups in the region. To counter pressures from the Germanic tribes to the west the capital was moved east from Poznan to Krakow. It was then divided into 4 smaller regions and the much weakened Poland fell to invaders. . The poles invited the Germanic Teutonic Knights to come rescue them, which they did, and then they turned their attention to subjugating the Poles. Poland finally gained a strong monarchy during the 14th to 17th Centuries. However the final great king, Sigismund Augustus, died without an heir in 1572 thus bringing the strong Jagiellonian dynasty to a close.
At this point the Sejm, a form of some sort of parliament, came up with a novel concept, elected kings. You may say it was a primitive form of a democracy where the ruling parliament selects the president. Unfortunately the Sejm wasn't exactly smart in their selection process. They often chose the king from foreign royal families. whose interests often did not coincide with the interests of the country. The country went on a downward spiral. In the first partition of 1773, Prussia, Russia and Austria took some 29% of the country, The final king, Poniatowski, tried to reverse the trend but the powerful magnets resisted and civil war followed. In 1791 the country adopted a constitution, the second such document in the world after the US constitution. In 1794 a major insurrection was mounted by a man who had been a great aid in the American Revolution, Tadeusz Kosciuszki. He battled the Russians in an attempt to toss them out of Poland. Alas, this was to fail and after two more partitions, Poland disappeared from the map.
But Poland would not go away. Members of the former Polish military joined with allied forces fighting against the Germans in W.W.I. In addition, high clergy in the catholic church kept the ideal of a Polish country alive. Thus, in kind of a reward for their effort, President Wilson ensured there would be a defined Polish country after W.W.I. Once again this was a short lived Poland as the Germans attacked very early in W.W.II and occupied Poland throughout much of war. In fact, many of the most notorious Jewish extermination camps, such as Aushwitz, are located in Poland. Because of the intense German occupation in the war many of the medieval cities were either partially or completely destroyed. Only major reconstruction after 1945 has brought most of the cities back to their former splendor.
After Germany surrendered, Poland was created once again as an independent country. Although the borders had all been shifted to the west returning some of the land claimed by Germany to the Poles. By this time the Soviet Communists had managed to infiltrate the country's politics. Naturally the first elections were rigged and the country was rapidly turned into a vassal country of the Soviet Union. Companies were nationalized, the country was industrialized, resources sacked and confiscated all to benefit the Russians more than the Poles. As in so many of the Soviet countries uprisings were brutally repressed, 1956 and 1968 being two particularly troublesome times. Yet in the end the people prevailed. The Peristroika movement set into place by Gorbechev began the process whereby the now famous Solidarity Union was able to wrest control from the Soviets in 1989. Since then the country has been rushing full speed ahead into a market based economy and democratic government. Although the economy seems a bit behind the Czech Republic, it's apparent that the Poles have made significant progress.
Flying down the Sudetten mountains into the heart of Polish countryside, the first thing we noticed was the amount of clear cut acreage. Despite a replanting effort, it appears that the Poles have been rapidly decimating their own forests, at least in the mountains. Rather a disappointment after the wonderful pristine forests of the Czech side. We made a brief stop in the town of Szklarska Poreba to exchange our remaining Czech krounas to Polish Zloty. If Harrachov on the Czech side was devoid of people its counterpart on the Polish side was brimming with life. Another mountain tourist town with many more tourist shops and hotels only looking just a bit more run down. Onward we flew into the town of Jelenia Gora, our first introduction to larger Polish cities and we were not impressed. But that may have been because we were hunting down a campground that seemed to be continually moving further away, or because of the heavy traffic, or because of the belching black smog coughing from the back of the cars, trucks, and busses, or because we wound up going in a complete circle around the city adding a full 20 km onto a day that was supposed to be just a short ride. In any event, we concluded right then and there we would do almost anything to avoid Polish cities in the future.
Things improved tremendously from that point on. Using maps with scales of 1:200,000 we were able to find some of the most quiet country roads we've ever seen. Passing through small towns it was so odd to see not a single car. Not one. Not parked on the side of the street, not driving on a cross road, not parked in driveways. That's not to say we did not encounter cars. But their numbers were so few compared to a similarly sized US town. We felt almost as if we had an entire country of bicycle paths all to ourselves. It'll be a shame when they grow to have the same number of cars per capita as the west. For now it's a dream for bike touring.
The poles have one of the strangest little cars we've ever seen. It's tiny. I do mean tiny. It's smaller than that new VW bug. It runs on just a 650cc engine mounted in the back and it's air cooled. You might say they've taken a motorcycle and put a cheap, squared-off metal box on top just so they can seat 4, or in many cases we see 6 people squished inside. And seeing a car approach with no visible front grill looks strangely wrong. Where's that typical happy car face we're so accustomed to? Here's what the Poles have to say about their own little car:
"Polands most common car is the 'baby Fiat' - 126p. This miniature version of a car is slightly faster than a carriage, but smaller and harder to see. They can sometimes be mistaken for a large boulder in the road and due to their dependability become just that quite often."
There are other odd customs in Poland. Out in almost every field stands a look-out tower made of rough poles. Hunting or a way to overlook their fields to see what's going on? We have no idea. Food stores are a real curiosity. Inside each you'll find a series of counters, similar to the US. There'll be a fruit counter where you have to ask the lady the pick out what you want. Same with the meat and bakery department. Strangest of all you have to pay at each counter separately. There'll still be a checkout line, but that seems to be reserved for packaged goods. One thought is that each department is owned by a separate individual and they need to keep the accounting apart from the rest of the store. In any event, it seems to be a highly inefficient, make unnecessary work scheme.
Other than that we were surprised with how nice some of the Polish houses are. They have or are building some extremely nice and very large homes. Most have beautiful gardens filled with flowers, vegetables, and sometimes a pond or fountain. We were very impressed.
Beyond the smelly town of Jelnia Gora we traveled along quiet roads toward the community of Oborniki. This was the monastery trail and we happened to pass by two of the huge old edifices. They looked a bit like giant churches with rows of college dorms and classrooms attached on both sides. I can well see why many monasteries were later actually turned into universities of some sort. The monastery in the town of Lubiaz was the largest in all Poland and is truly of remarkable size.
Located a mere 26 km from the city of Wroclaw, Oborniki is a very well-to-do bedroom community full of commuters who catch the easy to find daily trains into the city. It boasts big, clean, well cared for houses, a few nice restaurants, a descent hotel, and a nice park with a huge and very popular swimming pool. We promptly set up our Tee-pee in the campground which became the center of attention of 3 very curious boys. They wanted to know everything including what we carried in those little red bottles under our down tube. We had to react quickly as one was about to dump our stove gasoline all over the ground. Curiosity almost killed the kid.
In Polish Wroclaw is not pronounced anything similar to what it appears in English. It's something more like Vrots-slafa. This made it a bit more tricky to get train tickets into town. Paper and pen were a must. It's one of the many cities that has been completely rebuilt from ground up following W.W.II. The Germans had used it as a fortress and, consequently, the Russians rained bombs upon it during the end of the war. Hitler even spent some time in the city before it finally fell. The reconstruction was masterfully completed. It's a city of around the same age as Prague and was also a trade center. However it's evident in the architecture that Wroclaw never quite achieved the wealth and prominence of Prague. The buildings in the old town around the Rynek, which seems to mean the old town square in Polish, are a much smaller and simpler in style as compared to similar buildings in Prague. The sole exception is the old town hall. Purported to be the prettiest in all Poland it is quite a spectacle. It's got statues on the south side, church like spires all around, great carved portals, protruding windows. Almost fairytale castle in appearance. It is perhaps the prettiest building in all Wroclaw.
The most unique item to see in the city is a huge 360 degree painting called the Panorama Raclowice. It was created in 1894 to celebrate the centenary of the successful battle led by Tadeusz Kosciuszki on March 24, 1794 against the Russians. It was originally painted and displayed in the town of Lvov in the Ukraine. During W.W.II it was seriously damaged and the canvass was taken down, rolled up on several 15 m long rolls, and hidden away in the basement caves of a monastery. The Soviets considered the message of the painting to be too radical and did not allow the painting to be displayed. The building created just for it in the 1960s remained empty until 1985 when, finally under the lessening grip of the Gorbechev government, it was once again open for public viewing. Today it's quite the draw for Poles and non-Poles alike.
As you climb up the stairs you find yourself surrounded by this 15m tall and over 200m around painting of a 1700s battle field. In the foreground dirt, sand, trees, broken carts, and war debris have been scattered around the give a true 3D effect. In the background troops, both mounted and on foot, march toward various battle points, soldiers and peasants engage in arm -to-arm combat, the dead and wounded lay amidst the chaos, and the citizens pray for the end of the violence and tyranny of the Russians. The intent of the panorama was to give you the feel of being in the actual battle and it does a fairly good job. Fortunately there is an English version of the presentation, broadcast to headphones that are distributed at the start. They lead you around to the four main focal points of the battle scene, point out the important generals on both sides of the battle, and make note of the battle's outcome. For this particular skirmish Kosciuszki was victorious. It was months later on a battle field further north he met his final defeat. But, as a result of this one victory Tadeusz Kosciuszki became a national hero and a symbol of Poland freedom. His name appears on streets, squares, statues, and buildings throughout the country. He is even a bit of a national figure in the US. Deep in the heart of Philadelphia, PA stands a National Historic Site dedicated to the memory of this man and the assistance he provided during our own revolution. When we visited this site they mentioned that he was considered a Polish national hero. Little did we realize how much a hero.
Two days wandering Wroclaw was certainly enough to give us two very tired feet and a good feel for the city. It was time to push on north toward the oldest and origin of the Polish national identity, Poznan.
Appendix A - Route
June 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12th: (53, 63.99, 64.54, 69.49, 79.48, 99.20 km) East along the Main river bike path to Bamberg. Terrain, dead flat.
June 14, Main road to Cheb, 53.28 km, hills
PolandJune 25, Rt 3 to Jelenia Gora (55 km), Lots of down.
June 26, Jelenia Gora to Rt 365 to Stary Jawar then to Lignica Bole (65.6 km), Ups and downs.
June 27, (83.5 km) Legnica Pole to Koskowice, Rogznik, Mazurowice, Kawice, Luibiaz, Prawikow, Brzeg, Uraz, Roscistlawice, Obornik, Low rolling hills to almost flat.
June 30, (104.44 km) Obornik, Prusice, Kaszyce, Gruszeczka, Sulow, Milicz, Grodnowa, Wziachowo, Ostrowasy, Sulmierzyce, Chwaliszew, Biadki, Orpiszew, Roszki, Kozminiec, Dobrzyca. Flat, flat, nicely shaded forest roads.
Appendix B - Campsites or hotels
June 4: Mainflingen
Czech Republic -
June 14, Dresnice
June 25, Jelenia Gora
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.