Category Archives: Poland

Gdansk to Vilnius 1 – 9 June 2012

What a wonderful week we’ve had: a tailwind, rising temperatures, an idyllic end to my (Tamar) thirties, a most enjoyable start to my forties, a peaceful campsite just 5km from Vilnius city centre (with a friendly Greenlandic motorbiker in the tent next to us) and then, to our continuing delight and astonishment, about an hour after us, the arrival of another laden Pino!!

So, that’s the summary….now for the longer version.

Getting out of Gdansk began badly. We had no choice but to join the busy E77 main road, which was nose-to-tail with trucks. There was no hard shoulder, no space for us next to the trucks, and a very broken pavement with lots of kerb drops at various entrances to industrial estates and petrol stations. After a few kilometres we were pleased to head off onto a minor road. Sadly our pleasure was to be short-lived as we soon came across a guarded barricade that had not been marked on the map. The security guards told us we would have return to the E77.

Thankfully, a few kilometres later the road widened out and a nice smooth hard-shoulder appeared, the wind shifted to our backs, and all of a sudden we were cracking along at over 30kph. So we stayed on the E77 for as long as we could after that and despite not leaving the Gdansk campsite until 4pm managed to put in 80km before finding a nice little woodland to park ourselves in for the night.

The budget-friendly supermarket of choice for the discerning cyclist in Poland (doncha love that smiley little ladybird?)

The next day was noteworthy only for our fourth broken spoke (again, non-drive side and breaking inside the nipple…what is going on??) and the weather remained cold enough to drive me to wrap my down jacket around my socked feet inside the sleeping bag.

Some cranes…identified as such by some kind Dutch twitchers

The following morning dawned slightly brighter than previous days, with definite glimpses of cerulean blue between the grey clouds. A short hailstorm tried to dampen our spirits as we packed the tent away, but then the sun came out with more determination and we responded by boldly removing our coats for a while.

It was a Sunday, so the roads were blissfully quiet, with no trucks and very few cars to disturb us. The birds sang and the tarmac undulated gently through a bucolic idyll of billowing green fields and terracotta-roofed farmsteads. Just heavenly. It was particularly pleasing for me as it was the day before my 40th birthday and I couldn’t think of a nicer way to say goodbye to my thirties than to be pedalling along with the lovely Keith in such beautiful and peaceful scenery, reflecting on the ups and downs of the last decade and looking forward with excitement to the next one.

The deliciously extravagant organ at Swieta Lipka

A gyrating, trumpeting angel

In the afternoon we arrived at a church that our guidebook recommended for its unusual organ. We were not to be disappointed, and listened to a short recital of music on a fabulous instrument, adorned with gilded, automated angels that bowed, gyrated, rang bells and strummed lutes….almost in time to the organ music.

The day of my birthday got off to a rather inauspicious start when the peace of our campsite (in an uncultivated field, next to a small wood, about 500m from the road and out of sight over the brow of a hill) was shattered at 7.30am as we heard a tractor approaching across the field. A rather annoyed looking Polish farmer alighted from the cab and proceeded to chop down the saplings right next to our tent whilst we scurried around packing things away so he would not be delayed as he worked his way towards us. His expression softened somewhat at our haste, to the extent that we parted on good terms….but to be honest we’d have preferred to have our usual lazy breakfast before hitting the road.

Gotcha! A buzzard tries and fails to evade my lens.

The early start had some benefits though as we saw a fox, a deer and a buzzard within the first few kilometres, and even managed to get a photo of the buzzard, just has he was taking to the air in an effort to evade the camera. We enjoyed a day of easy pedalling, lightened our panniers  by posting some old maps and other bits and pieces back home, and then celebrated in the evening with a fine dinner of cheese tortellini in a tomato sauce bursting with vegetables and some delicious sausage. The piece-de-resistance was a conical, spiky cake into which we poked some sparklers for that authentic party-feeling.

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me…!

Poland has given us some beautiful cities, quiet woodland campsites, and generally enjoyable pedalling…but the next country was beckoning….Lithuania. We put in a reasonably big day and crossed the border after 95km, changed our last few Zloty into Litas, put our watches forward an hour and began looking for a place to camp. Oh dear. Every likely looking cluster of trees contained a small house, every enticing hill was hiding a small house, every dirt trail ended up at….you’ve guessed it. It took us over an hour and a further 20km but we finally found a suitably hidden spot and laid our heads down on Lithuanian soil.

Lithuania

Those first 20km in Lithuania thankfully weren’t indicative of what lay ahead. Our first full day there took us through pretty villages separated by long, empty stretches of forest and grassland, dotted with only the most occasional wooden dwelling. We were spoilt for choice camping the next night and found a beautiful open grassy area near the edge of a forest. A van approached at one point but stopped at a logpile about 50-100m from us, then, after a few minutes, drove away having given no indication of having seen us or our tent. We relaxed and enjoyed an evening eating out on the blanket, unusually for this trip as for once there were few mosquitoes.

Gathering hay

About 25km before Vilnius is the town of Trakai, where, in the early 14th century, a castle had been built on a small island (and indeed took up the entirety of the island). The misfortunes of war and the ravages of time took their toll and by the end of the 17th century nothing but a ruin remained. Little changed then at the castle for over 200 years; regret was expressed about the loss of heritage (especially as the castle had been significant as the seat of power when Trakai had been the country’s capital) and various restoration plans were mooted, but it wasn’t until 1902 that work actually began to rebuild the castle to its former glory. Disagreements, financial crises and the occasional war intervened over the course of the next 90 years, but for the most part work continued in almost every decade of the 20th century, until it was finally completed in 1992. And what a fine achievement! The castle is now a visual treat, a delight to explore, houses a large museum and the main hall is frequently used for concerts, school award ceremonies and state events. It feels like a shame that the people who had the vision and drive to start the restoration weren’t around to see its completion.

The island castle at Trakai

From Trakai it was an easy pedal to the city campsite at Vilnius. On first impression this was a featureless field of motorhomes, on the edge of an industrial site, fenced in with the kind of metal panels you see round worksites, with amenities provided in a row of what looked like yellow metal shipping containers. On closer inspection, the rows of neatly parked motorhomes hid a little oasis of mature trees, and over the fence was natural parkland with a stunning view of the surprisingly beautiful and elegant television tower. The yellow containers were simply but cleanly kitted out with a good laundry, kitchen and shower facilities, and there was cheap, unlimited wifi (whoop!).

Keith admiring Marie-Lise & Paul’s Pino (the grey trunk houses their kitchen, which occasionally overflows into other bags…we like this approach very much)

Best of all though were the people on the site. The sites we’ve stayed on so far have provided few opportunities for socialising, but here in Vilnius we met the softly spoken Kent, from Greenland, who’s been motorbiking around for the last 2 years and had arrived just a few minutes before we did, and then, a hour or so later, oh treat of treats, Marie-Lise and Paul rolled in on their steel Pino towing a two-wheeled trailer, and loaded with possibly even more luggage than we’ve got! Most impressive of all was their gourmet kitchen…ours is positively meagre in comparison.

An impromptu lunch in Vilnius, including beetroot salad and wild boar & rice in a tin

After a day doing our own things in Vilnius, the five of us had a most convivial evening last night, drank far too much beer and wine, and undertook a full comparison of the two Pinos, including swapping bikes and racing up and down the road outside the campsite.

Keith, Paul and Marie-Lise being quietly industrious after a somewhat fragile morning

Kent left this morning, after sensibly going to bed quite early. The four reprobate pinoists had a somewhat slow start to the day and then repaired to the kitchen where Marie-Lise and I have been writing our respective blogs (check out their blog here – they have some lovely photos), Paul has been painting the most beautiful pictures, and Keith has been replacing the rear rim of our Pino, which, as anticipated, has developed some large cracks. We’ve been disappointed by the Alex DH19 rims and are now trying the Sun Rhyno.

A new rim, and a D-lock coming in handy as a workstand

Berlin to Gdansk 22 May – 1 June 2012

Campsite comparisons, getting the miles in, and beautiful but Baltic Gdansk.

Staying at a ‘paid-for’ campsite rather than camping wild has a number of attractions:

• Showers (free if we’re lucky – more often we have to buy tokens )
• Toilets
• Wifi (at varying expense)
• Washing machine (usually expensive)
• A relatively safe place to leave your kit whilst sight-seeing

But also a number of annoyances:

• Shower-token running out whilst still shaving legs (Tamar, not Keith, as he’s currently not racing)
• Washing machine not rinsing clothes properly
• Extortionate cost of wifi in some campsites
• Teenagers running past tent shrieking
• Queues for showers and toilets
• No room to hang clothes in tiny showers so everything gets soaked
• Reception closing for half the day and taking with it the only access to electricity
• Campsite owners deciding to chain large, amiable, long-haired Alsatian next to our tent overnight, on a chain that is just long enough to allow him to sit on the tent and get tangled up in the guy-ropes. We shortened the chain to prevent tent-damage but couldn’t do anything about him barking all bl**dy night long.
• General noise and mayhem – our current site is undergoing some expansion work, with builders arguing and dropping large metal beams all over the place (AND it’s full of shrieking teenagers AND has the barking dog.)

I’m enjoying our trip…honestly I am! I’m just having a ‘campsite moment’ and hope you’ll indulge me.

Another evening relaxing in the Chateaux

Wild camping is, by contrast, usually lovely and peaceful. We can occasionally hear a little more road-traffic than we’d like to, but as a rule the only things to disturb us are the deer (at least I’m assuming it was a deer that was making the throaty grunting sound outside the tent at 2am whilst Keith snuffled peacefully and obliviously at my side) and the mosquitoes. But since mosquitoes are a nuisance whether you’re in the wild or on a campsite they kind of cancel themselves out of the equation.

In fact, the only reason we stay at paid-for campsites is to wash ourselves and our clothes (which will be less of a draw when the weather is warmer and washing in rivers becomes a more pleasant option), to charge the netbook and post the blog, and to allow us to go sightseeing unfettered by our baggage.
It doesn’t always go to plan though and the Berlin campsite was one of those occasions. We’d done our sightseeing and on day two had planned to have a lie-in, pack the tent away and then ensconce ourselves at the reception with the intention of plugging in the netbook to sort through photos, draft the blog, and then finally, pay for an hour or so of internet access to get it all posted.

What actually happened was we arrived at reception at 11.30 to find it closed from 12-3 (an oversight on our part….it was advertised as such on the door so we should have realised) and so we ended up sitting outside sorting and labelling photos and writing the blog before riding into Berlin to post, with dwindling battery, from Potsdammer Platz, which offered free wifi. This was not ideal as our solar panel struggles to keep the netbook going at the best of times so to set off with next to no battery life was a bit irritating.

As a result we decided to head to another ‘paid-for’ campsite early the following day just 40km or so from Berlin. After establishing they had free internet and an outside electric point, we spent the best part of two days there catching up on some online activity.

I was slightly concerned as we approached this new campsite as it was advertised as ‘natur-camping’. Thankfully it turned out to be a nature camp not a naturist camp, but given the amount of, err, German sausage on display beside a lake back in Potsdam the latter would not have surprised me.

We left the nature camp quite late the next day (making the most of our night’s fee and the wifi) and then spent the rest of the afternoon in a vain hunt for camping gas. The result of all this internet and gas-related faffing was that two days after leaving Berlin we were still some distance from the Polish border, whereas our original expectation had been to be in Poland the day after Berlin.

Anyhow, we eventually pulled our fingers out, set foot to pedal, and crossed into Poland at Kostrzyn on 25 May. We still couldn’t find any gas so bought some paraffin and switched to our multi-fuel burner.

If you’re wondering why we carry two burners, it’s because we really like cooking on gas, but it’s not always easy to find. Weight-conscious (and some might say more pragmatic) travellers simply accept that and get on with using a multi-fuel burner (which is cheaper to run and you can get petroleum-based fuel of some description pretty much anywhere). But we think the gas burner has sufficient advantages to warrant bringing both.

If it’s peeing with rain then gas can be used, with extreme care, inside the vestibule, whereas a multi-fuel stove absolutely cannot. The large yellow flames that can occur on priming are just not safe anywhere near the tent. We also think the gas has a much better simmer control than the multi-fuel. So as a rule, we use gas when it’s available, and when it’s starting to become harder to find we switch to multi-fuel and try to keep a gas canister in reserve for the days when it’s really too unpleasant to cook outside.

Cue childish snigger

The area of Poland we we’ve been cycling through is fairly heavily forested so finding somewhere out of sight to camp has been pretty easy. Keith, however, is on a mission to have a mosquito-free evening (they do seem to be particularly prevalent in forested areas) and keeps a constant look out for a nice, open field. It’s getting to be quite amusing as we ride through lots of lovely fields at lunchtime, and then by the late afternoon and early evening seem to be surrounded by nothing but forest.

Can I have some tarmac please?

We’ve now left behind the detailed Bikeline R1 cycle-route map book, but our 1:300,000 Polish map shows national, regional and local paved roads and also local unpaved roads. The quality of the road in any of those categories is a bit variable though, so the success of our route-selection has been a bit hit-and-miss. Local paved roads range from pristine tarmac to brutal cobbles. Regional roads can be quiet and delightful, or can be full of articulated lorries squeezing past each other on heavily rutted tarmac. National roads might have an excellent hard shoulder or adjacent bike-path, or might be like the worst regional roads: narrow, with lots of lorries and rutted tarmac.

Bilingual signage in Polish and Kashubian

On the whole the cycling’s been good though, with the only bad day being on approach to Gdansk – unsurprising really as it’s a busy port, but the roads are really struggling to cope with the number of HGVs.

Cities are always a bone of contention between me and Keith as I think they’re better approached on a bikeless, city-break type of holiday. I just don’t like the traffic: the relentless noise, the overbearing HGVs, the random pedestrians that leap with gay abandon into the road and the feeling of imminent doom that hangs over my every pedal stroke. To make the experience even less pleasant than normal, the Baltic coast lived up to its stereotype and the temperature dropped noticeably as we approached Gdansk, forcing us to stop and add a few layers of clothes. So my first impression of Gdansk, as we negotiated our way along a busy dual-carriageway, desperately trying to find signs for the campsite, was not a good one.

The campsite’s quite noisy and cramped too so that didn’t help my mood, although it is cheap, has unlimited wifi and also unlimited hot water (in the tiny little showers).

Gdansk’s old port – the mediaeval crane is on the right

It’s amazing what a difference a detailed local map makes though. At the campsite we bought a 1:26,000 map and the next day headed back into the city on a much less traumatic route (although still fairly heavy with lorries in places due to port traffic and disruption caused by the building of a new road).
Gdansk itself was well worth the pain of the busy roads though. We started off with a ride out to Westerplatte – a large sand-bank about 7km north of Gdansk main town, which formed in the 17th & 18th centuries, came to life as a beach resort in the 19th century, became a naval post in the 20th century and was the site of WW2’s first battle when a German battleship attacked the Polish naval post.

Gargoyles & perrons (terraced entrances) on Mariacka Street

We then made our way into Gdansk itself and fell immediately in love with it. Despite being extensively damaged in WW2, its historic centre has been restored with care and has retained a feeling of authenticity. Whilst undoubtedly catering to tourists, with a glut of restaurants, street-stalls and amber jewellery shops, it manages to avoid the ‘theme-park’ feel of some restorations, particular as the day draws to a close and the crowds of tourists disperse.

Shipyard Workers Monument

We ambled round, admiring the 15th century crane (which was powered by men in giant treadmills and could lift an impressive 2000kg), the huge basilica, the jutting gargoyle waterspouts and ornately decorated frontages, and then visited the old shipyard where there’s a photo exhibition about the Solidarity movement, and a huge monument to the workers who were killed in riots in 1970.

Yesterday (31 May) we spent the morning sorting photos & drafting the blog and in the afternoon went on a bike-shop hunt. We’d tried two shops the day before but neither had the brake-pads we need. However we struck gold yesterday on our third shop and as well as buying two set of pads (at an astonishingly good price), we got a couple of bottle cages to go on the trailer, I replaced my sunglasses (which were falling apart) and Keith bought two new pairs of shorts. A most successful outing.

Gdansk’s quirkier side

The weather remains cold and we awoke to rain this morning, which stopped for an hour or so but is now lashing down again, so today is being faced with some reluctance…but it’s time to get back on the road. We’ll be heading through the Polish Lake District of Warminsko-Mazurskie over the next few days on our way to Lithuania.