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Published: June 22nd 2012
Motorhome News from Poland II
June 2012 Hunting for Bison and Wild boar - sent to the Salt Mines and Chasing Dragons in Krakow ‘I remember’
I remember every moment of our last visit to Poland, though the faces of our group of birders are long forgotten. I remember the ancient forests and crystal rivers, the many birds I had never seen before, and I remember the man who never sleeps; the man with the sparkling, intelligent eyes and the ragged beard; bursting with energy, excited by everything around him - my kind of guy. Sadly, we’ll not get to meet Marek on this trip as our paths will cross on different days.
It is ten years this month since we were last here. The hay meadows still feast the eyes with the wild flowers of yesteryear, the Thrush Nightingales still sing their little hearts out, hidden from view in a clump of willow, ancient tractors still work the smaller fields, riverside marshes teem with birds, many of the old wooden houses have yet to set eyes on a tin of paint and the
dense forests are as lush and green as they were a thousand years ago.
The horse-drawn plough is now a very rare sight and the crop-fields seem bigger somehow, ploughed and tilled by modern machinery. Roadside paths are now brick-paved in the heart of the village where old cottages have new roofs and smart new houses sprout like a breath of spring. The little shop with nothing to sell has gone from along the street and in its place a small supermarket - open all hours. The lumbering tortoise is on the move - now the Soviets are history.
We entered Poland again on Ascension Day, as nuns and faithful pilgrims hastened towards the top of the Hill of Crosses in a sudden downpour, in answer to the call of the tolling bell of tiny Wasilikow church. Some 80% of Poles follow the Catholic Faith and this has been strengthened with the coming of a Polish Pope, the late John Paul II. Many new churches have been built across the country in recent years. I remember too, the days of my youth, when the church was an important part of my community back home.
Those days are long gone.
Birding brought us back to the Dojlidy fish ponds near Bialystok, and Lake Siemianowka; our feathered friends now billing and cooing, busy with nesting and some already tending their young. The warblers had arrived since we left here just four weeks ago; a Savi’s warbler buzzing away on top of a bush, a Great Reed warbler in the reeds, Sedge warblers, an Icterine warbler - and Whooper swans, bitterns, coot and mallard all busy with chicks. Poland offers an exceptional birding and wildlife experience. We were so privileged to be back.
Now, just close your eyes for a moment. I want to take you to a rather special place. Here, through these great wooden gates marking the entrance to an aurora borealis of green almost beyond belief. A green so dense you will imagine yourself in another world.
For if I remember one thing more than anything else about Poland, it is the Bialowieza primeval forest; a dense shroud of moss and lichen on rotting logs, mighty oaks, their trunks two metres and more in diameter reaching for the sky some 38m above where
Bialowieza primeval forest
..a dense shroud of moss and lichen
their branches spread like an umbrella across the canopy, mighty limes and hornbeam, soaring pines and quaking aspen rising ever upwards to the heavens. With little light there is sparse understory; ferns and flag-iris, moss and fungus – a magic carpet of green saved for us all to savour, wrapped with care in a soft blanket of nature’s sounds, a place to close your eyes and sit, back to an ancient oak, with legs crossed, to dream.
This magnificent protected forest, covering 100 square km (39 square miles) in Poland and extending across the border into Belarus, is all that remains of that which once covered most of Europe at the end of the last ice age. As far as we know, it has never been deforested and fallen trees are left to nature’s whim. It is home to many rare birds, European bison, wolves, lynx, red deer, wild boar, elk and roe deer.
Entry to the reserve is allowed only with a guide - and we set forth at 4.30am as the silvery sun filtered through the morning mist, glistening like diamonds on the dewy meadow, following in the footsteps of Mateuse, a
forester and bird guide. Our hopes were high; our pulses racing, eyes wide and alert, quietly threading our way across the meadow towards the gate. The first bird, a Red-backed Shrike. Others followed: a Corncrake rattled its call in the tall grass, and in the reserve a Three-toed woodpecker was feeding chicks, a Middle-spotted woodpecker posed nearby and a black woodpecker flew off before us. We worry about the disappearance of our Spotted Flycatchers back at home, but here they’re everywhere, darting in and out of the trees in a spectacular dance alongside their family friends, the Pied and Collared Flycatchers. The larger mammals eluded us on this occasion; the reserve is vast and the chances of seeing them are always somewhat slim. The best we could do was a bank vole and a mouse! The following day, however, on a longer than planned and rather rustic bog-walk, a family of wild boar trampled through the trees in flight as we approached and a red deer stood motionless, watching us pass by. I guess that made up for it - and we did get to see a group of fourteen bison when we were last here in 2002. A few
photo prints are all that’s left of that visit – in the days of of 35mm film and slides!
It came as a considerable surprise for us to find well-preserved remnants of aristocratic residences here in Poland, but indeed there are many. Built in 1735, Kozlowka Palace is a Baroque delight with a beautifully ornate columned portico and red-tiled gabled roof. The lavish interior contains the original collection of fabulous furniture, many magnificent porcelain figures, huge chandeliers, the most enormous ceramic stoves and walls clad with more than a thousand paintings – a feast as exquisite as one might find in any National Trust property back home. We learned little from our Polish guide who spoke in Polish throughout - but it’s all in the meticulously presented guide-book included in the modest entry price. They don’t get many visitors from England this far to the east.
“The population of Poland is around 38million,” Mateuse had told us. “Though the last census suggested we had lost about 2 million people.” How very careless! Many have settled near our home in England in recent years if anybody is the least bit interested in finding
them. The rising standard of living has led to more cars than we remember from before; nothing fancy or ostentatious in that very ‘Polish’ way - and they’re having to work hard on the roads to keep things moving. Currently, travel on major roads (the red ones on the map) is frustratingly slow and we rarely managed an average speed of more than 50 kph over long distances, having to continuously reduce speed for stringent restrictions in every little town or village along the way.
Tempted by the uplands of the Mazovia region to the southeast of Warsaw, we drove the bumpy roads across the gentle hills and picturesque landscape of forest and narrow strip-fields so characteristic of this Roztocze district, to Zamosc near the border with Ukraine. Cultivated fields no more than 20 metres wide swept in long lines over the horizon; strips of rye and barley, hay and currant bushes, cabbages, potatoes and sweet-corn, like twists of barley-sugar. The fascinating town of Zamosc was already alive with music and youth when we arrived shortly after 9 am; parties of school-children, students and young performers on stage in the Great Market square, totally enclosed by arcades,
pavement cafes and the most magnificent Town Hall with its sweeping fan staircase. Zamosc is said to be one of the best-preserved Renaissance towns in Europe, built back in the late 16th
Century on Italian lines, with brightly coloured arcaded houses, several squares - and many churches of course. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site, delightfully restored and suitably befitting of an hour, just sipping coffee in the sunshine, listening to the students singing and watching artists in waiting, sketching and painting street scenes, the subject of the day.
Still further south, in the land they call, ‘Lesser Poland’, or Malopolska, we sought out another of Poland’s fine houses, Lancut Palace. They work hard here to make the tourist’s life difficult as I think we’ve mentioned before. First it’s essential to play hunt the ticket-office; which according to the guide books, opens at 9am. We did eventually find it, but, oh, no it doesn't open at 9am - despite what it says in the brochure and on the sign over the cash desk! There were many frustrated visitors in the queue that morning, tight-lipped, eyes up to the ceiling, moving from one foot to the other
- and arguing with the cashier the moment she arrived at 9.45. But the wait was worthwhile. This 17th
Century house stands like a pearl in a ring of limes and a dry moat. It is truly quite magnificent, with beautifully furnished rooms, more massive ceramic stoves, a spectacular mirrored and chandeliered Neo-Classical Ballroom and the most exquisite Theatre. Audio guides in English and over-slippers to protect the ornate parquet-floors this time!
Looking towards the mid-day sun we could see the long outline of the Bieszczady mountains, bringing a surge of excitement to the landscape after six weeks with little more than the odd hump in the road. Perhaps that's one thing we have missed throughout this whole trip; those church crested hill-top villages of France, the terracotta rooftops above the rolling slopes of Tuscany, the sparkling mountains of Switzerland, the bold colours of the Spanish uplands or the winding-rolling country lanes and pretty villages of England. Poland and the Baltic States are all truly beautiful in their own way, but it is the 'pretty' bit that's generally been hard to find until now; a personal perception perhaps. There is never sufficient time on these
long-haul vacations of ours. Beyond our reach this time are the beautiful Tatra Mountains drawing a dividing line with the Slovak border - but we were climbing there, just on the other side of the river, on our previous escapade out to the east in 2010. Krakow
Janice had been hankering to go to Krakow for a while. I'm not sure if her dreams have now been fulfilled. You'll have to ask her.
By midday we were in the Old Town; the 6 km tram-ride having cost the amazing sum of 6 pln (€1.30) each return. Public transport is very affordable here in Poland. It was Sunday, a good quiet day for sight-seeing by our reckoning.
But this Sunday the streets were teeming with families with push-chairs and kids, camera-toting tourists and everybody's auntie, smiling, clapping, crowding the pavements and jostling to catch a glimpse of a long strand of marching dragons! It was Krakow Dragon Parade time; right through the centre of town and into the square. We joined the crowd, of course, leaping off the tram almost before it stopped, still kids
at heart. The dragon is the symbol of Krakow by the way and the parade is an annual event.
My personal hankering in Krakow was to visit a little gallery with a certain Leonardo da Vinci lady I've wanted to meet for quite a while. But Janice has a second sense for these things. "What's the betting the gallery will be closed or the painting has gone to London for the latest Leonardo Exhibition?” she said as we set off. A long walk across the city proved her right of course (but when isn't she right?) and revealed the Czartoryski Princes Museum was closed for renovation. Just my luck.
But, hang on. There's a sign on the door. The lady I want to see is on display at the Wawel Royal Castle!
It's a long trek back across the city from whence we came, up the cobbled Wawel Hill, around the road-works to play (here we go again) 'hunt the information desk'
at the castle.
"The exhibition was open today but it has just closed! It will be open again on Tuesday," said the unsmiling receptionist without the slightest hint
'Life is but a short dream'
of a Mona Lisa.
"Just my luck," I said for the second time in an hour; too much time enjoying ourselves watching the Dragon Parade. By this time I was getting a headache and an attack of Florence frustration.
However, the Joseph Mehoffer House Museum, where we stopped over for lunch, was both open - and free on Sundays! This is a delightful homely exhibition of his life, his lovely Town House and his close family, in stained-glass, (Art Nouveau, for which he is particularly remembered) oil and photographs. The house is delicately furnished and so very ‘un-museum’ it’s quite refreshing. One fascinating picture caught my eye - it's called, 'Life is but a short dream'.
That's worth thinking about.
The museum is just beyond the Old Town limits. Its very refined restaurant is small and instantly inviting, the food beautifully presented and exceedingly cheap - we lunched for 30pln (€7.50) for two, including tea and
a soft drink. Give it a try when you visit! Eating out is remarkably inexpensive off the beaten track in Poland.
But the one place from which to admire the city has to be the wide expanse of Market Square, the Rynek Glowny, surrounded on all sides by churches and fine Renaissance buildings, thronged with crocodile-lines of students of all ages, gift stalls, buskers and tourists; noses down in their guide-books trying to figure out where to go first. Krakow is a city of narrow streets and magnificent squares, breathtaking from the first moment one steps into Market Square; spacious and lively, dominated on one side by the 14th Century Dominican Church of St Mary and the Gothic tower of the City Hall on the other, and at its centre, the Cloth Hall, lined from end-to-end with tasteful souvenir stalls and inquisitive visitors.
Krakow’s Renaissance Castle and Gothic Cathedral overlook the city from the Wawel, high above the Old Town centre. The Cathedral, regarded by many Poles as a spiritual shrine, is overpoweringly dark inside; ornate and lavishly gilded but at the same time rather somber, but here, like all other churches
in Poland it seems, respectful Catholics young and old were present in large numbers. Karol Wojtyla, better known to us as Pope John Paul II, came from these parts. As we left, a young lady sat cross-legged on the cold steps of the Cathedral with a sleeping child on her lap, her head lowered, her right hand outstretched. We were to meet her again an hour or so later as we passed a lady busker on the square; motionless, swathed in gold complete with hat. The young lady stood before her, holding the baby, wide eyed in amazement, dropping a few coins in the pot. That's how the economy works; keep passing the money around.
A short walk away in the Jewish quarter, The Old Synagogue stands out in stark contrast to the opulent Cathedral, for its total simplicity and lack of ornamentation. This so very poignant synagogue now houses a museum providing a meaningful insight into Jewish customs and the tragic consequences of Nazi occupation in Krakow during World War II.
There are some rather special moments reserved only for the Grey-haired nomads I'm sure. At 9 am, the moment the ticket-desk opened,
Leonardo da Vinci
Lady with an ermine
we purchased our tickets to visit the special exhibit in the Royal Castle where we were to meet that 'certain little lady' I mentioned earlier.
We were first through the door promptly at 9.30.
Leonado da Vinci's 'Lady with an Ermine', greeted us from her recessed gilt frame in a darkened room, no more than ten metres square - under the watchful eyes of two black-suited security guards. We stood in silence; the four of us, sharing ten rather special minutes in contemplation; just who is this very special lady portrayed by the master? She's as special as the Mona Lisa in my book - and almost as special as my favourite, Ginevra de’ Benci, hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Now we can happily leave Krakow.
David and Janice
The Grey-haired nomads
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