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In Poland 2009 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

IN POLAND - AUTUMN 2009

The Travel Log of a Motorhome Journey from the North to the South of Poland

Margaret and Barry Williamson
October 2009

This illustrated travel log describes our motorhome journey from the North to the South of Poland in the autumn of 2009. We had spent the spring in the south-east corner of Bulgaria, based at the quiet Sakar Hills Camping in Biser. After driving back to England for essential repairs, service, MOT and family visits, we took a ferry from Harwich to Rotterdam. Driving through Holland and Germany, we boarded the ferry from Sassnitz to Trelleborg near the southern tip of Sweden. All this was the prelude to a fascinating 1,300-mile journey through Swedish forest and lakes, north along the western edge of the Gulf of Bothnia.

We entered Finland at the top of the Gulf, over the Tornio River in the neighbouring towns of Haparanda and Tornio. After crossing the Arctic Circle some 50 miles north of Rovaniemi - Santa's home town – we made our slow way south through the centre of Finland to Helsinki on this, our fifth visit to this amazing country of forest and lake.

Making the 2-hour crossing from Helsinki to Estonia's capital city, Tallinn, we made our third visit to the three Baltic Republics. Small they may be (the largest, Lativia, is smaller than Ireland), but each has its own fascination and completely different language, history and culture. Only 20 years ago, all three republics were just a part of the USSR, ruled from Moscow. Not least, our interest was to learn more of their progress since out first visit in 1999, now that they are members of the European Union.

Leaving Lithuania after a one-month, 920-mile (1,470-km) tour of the three Baltic Republics, we entered Poland at the border village of Budzisko. Here is our account of a motorhome journey south through Poland, a land of beauty and tragic  history.

Click: A full account of the journey from England to Finland
Click: A full account of the journey south through Finland to Helsinki
Click: A full account of the journey south through the Baltic Republics
Click: A full account of the following journey south through Slovakia 
Click: Galleries and Slide Shows of images of the journey through the Baltics
Click: Galleries and Slide Shows of images of the journey through Poland
Click: Images and a description of our Fleetwood Flair motorhome
Click: Images and a description of our Paul Hewitt touring bicycles

12 October 2009   115 miles   Trakai, Lithuania to Suwalki, Poland   Swiss Bar TIR Parking   10 zloty

Via Marijampole and along the TIR route into Poland

On a damp grey Monday morning we drove to Trakai and turned west on A16/E28, past an Iki supermarket/fuel station. Parking here was easier than at the busy Maxima in the town itself. The 2-lane road rolled along with a much better surface than highways in Latvia.

After 44 miles, at Birstonas village, there was just one mile of dual carriageway through the Nemunas Crook Regional Park, tucked in a loop of the river. The Nemunas delta at the Curonian Spit provides a very important nesting ground for storks and other birds. We crossed the river 3 miles later in Prienai, continuing west on A16.

Marijampole (at 75 miles) is a busy industrial town of smoking chimneys, less than 25 miles from the Polish border on a main transit route. No 'tourist objects' or campsites here! We parked in a side street by a Maxima supermarket to spend our last Lithuanian coinage, giving the small change to a vagrant at the entrance – the first begging we'd seen since Bulgaria. Much of the actual car park was taken up with vehicle accessory and repair places, while the yard behind was full of used cars, fresh off the Autobahns of Germany (on transporters with Russian graphics). The ring road skirting Marijampole and leading south for the border was badly signed and we eventually left on the old A5, joining the E67 at Kalvarija 14 miles later.

The new EU-funded road has only 2 lanes, quite inadequate for the number of international trucks using it, and we shared our lane with road works and a horse-drawn cart loaded with manure. The area is still high (nearly 500 ft) but much less forested, with open fields and cattle. Approaching the border there were several filling stations. The automated Neste pumps (cheaper than the others, with no staff to pay) wouldn't accept our foreign credit card: a situation we'd had in Finland. Most annoying. We did buy fuel at a new TIR park, where we ate our lunch, at 99 miles.

A mile later, following the grooves that the heavy trucks had already worn in the new road, we reached the Lithuanian frontier post (abandoned), then the Polish control checkpoint, which waved us through. A few cabins offered currency exchange and 'Winiety' (vignettes, the pan-European word for road toll stickers). We changed some notes for Zloty (pronounced Zwoty, worth abut 4.5 to the pound sterling) and checked out 'Winiety', pleased that only HGVs and commercial buses, etc, need one - not private vehicles. With our clocks put back one hour (onto Central European Time) and the mobile phones tuned to Poland, we had left the Baltics after almost a month and 920 miles. Welcome to Poland at the border village of Budzisko.

Along E67/road 8 we passed several TIR parks offering a place for the night, fuel, a restaurant, showers, even free WiFi. Some now include a motorhome emblem or the word 'Camping' on their sign. None has ever refused us a night, for a small parking fee, though hook-ups are not generally available.

After 13 Polish miles on the smooth 2-lane road, very busy with trucks and still wet from recent rain, we came to a long traffic jam on our side, with nothing coming through towards us. A young Pole in the GB-registered car in front was proudly showing the guy in front of him the right-hand steering wheel. Gradually, cars managed to leave the queue, turning round and down a side lane – a manoeuvre neither we nor the line of lorries could make.

The delay lasted for an hour, the queue almost 2 miles long. When we finally filtered through past the cause, we were shocked to see an articulated lorry on its side on a bend, surrounded by police, and a burnt-out pulverised car being taken away on a breakdown truck. It was sickening to imagine the crash.

Less than a mile later we came to a TIR park we'd used 3 years ago, at the Swiss Bar Club on the left: a welcome refuge from the continuing hold-up. We paid 10 zloty to a roughly-dressed man who banged on our door and who, we hoped, was also the night watchman. The 'Club' has a very cosy bar/restaurant, complete with log fire and pool table, excellent toilets and free WiFi, which reached our motorhome parked in the furthest corner. Good clean showers are available for an extra charge and euros, zloty or credit cards are all accepted.

Towards evening we did a little writing, listening to BBC radio 4 (another benefit of WiFi internet), though the signal wouldn't support Voipwise calls. As the temperature dropped, we moved across to the Club to watch the log fire, eating pork chops with cheese & mushroom sauce and a pile of super-fresh hot chips. Excellent food – we were only sorry that the hot apple pie & ice cream was sold out.

The downside of TIR parks (like motorway services) can be the noise of engines, coming and going at all hours. Separate breakdown trucks brought the cab and trailer from the doomed lorry to park alongside us, and a fresh fruit carrier kept his diesel-engine-powered fridge running all night.

13 October 2009   98 miles   Suwalki to Gizycko, Poland   Hotel Elixir Camping   48 zloty

Via Augustow and Elk to Poland's Great Masurian Lake District

It had been a cold night but, with LPG (last filled in Sweden) very widely used and sold in Poland, we had no hesitation putting the heating on over breakfast, before heading straight down E67/road 8 into Suwalki, 3 miles south.

Turning left (signed Bialystok) in the town, we immediately stopped at a brand new Lidl store. It was well-stocked and packed with customers, many of them from over the border in Lithuania - buying to supply their own little shops, judging by the contents of their trolleys! Margaret was happy to join them, especially as Christmas goodies like Stollen cake and chocolate gingerbreads and marzipans had arrived.

After this retail fix, we continued south on E67, past McDonalds, the bus station and a busy market, to a dual carriageway on the east side of Suwalki. Poland already felt somehow more European, less Russian, than the Baltics - or even Finland. Passing a camping sign on the right, about 2 miles after the centre, we turned off to check and soon saw 'Polna 12 Camp' with caravan/motorhome parking at a private house. Probably a quieter alternative to a TIR park, for next time.

Following the grooves down E67, there were enormous trucks travelling in both directions and TIR parks aplenty. At Augustow, a pleasant town of parks and lakes 20 miles south of Suwalki (and desperately in need of bypass surgery), we turned west on road 16, signed Olsztyn. This is narrower with no shoulder but much less busy, off the international transit route. We were heading for an area of Poland quite new to us: the Great Masurian Lakes - thousands of them. Grand new houses in the leafy suburbs gave way to farmland, now furrowed by tractors rather than the horses their drivers remembered. The storks had flown south and autumn's palette painted the woods.

At 39 miles in the small town of Kalinowo, the stone church guarded by a statue of Maria reminded us of Poland's deep Catholicism, with pictures of the late Polish pope still prominent. In Elk, a bigger town 13 miles later, we followed a detour to avoid a low railway bridge which, quite by chance, took us past another Lidl! We used its generous car park for lunch, nipping inside to buy something and avoid the threat of non-customers being towed away! The security manager inside was keen to chat, in fluent English – the result of 5 years' work at an Asda supermarket in Cardiff. He thought he might apply for a job at the new Tesco being built in Elk. We were soon to realise that the number of Poles returning from a stint in Britain, now that the pound has slumped in value, means English-speakers are no longer rare here.

After driving west for another 18 miles, past more small lakes separated by beautiful broad-leaved woodland, we turned north at Orzysz on road 63. There were warning signs for deer and elk in the golden forest, crucifixes decked in ribbons at the roadside and pleasant cemeteries full of colourful flowers.

Arriving in Gizycko at the head of Lake Niegocin (after 88 miles' driving), we had reached the centre of the Masurian Lakes. This verdant land of rolling hills (about 460 ft high), peaceful farms and dense forest is interspersed with over 2,000 glacial lakes connected by 200 km of canals. In fact the total number of lakes in Poland (over 3,000) is the second highest in Europe, surpassed only by Finland! The area deserves to be much better known for sailing, fishing, hiking, cycling and bird watching.

Turning left in the town centre we came to a Dutch-style swing bridge built in 1860 over the Luczanski Canal: said to be one of only 2 such bridges in Europe, worked manually through a system of gears by a single operator. But it had a 2.5 ton weight limit, so we made a hasty retreat and parked near the main square, well placed for Tourist Information and a bank ATM. The young man in TI was extremely helpful, with an excellent grasp of English from his time working in Ireland. We left with a pile of local maps and leaflets, including details of Hitler's 'Wolf's Lair' and other WW2 sites in the area, and an assurance that Elixir Hotel/Camping to the west of town was open.

Leaving Gizycko northwards on road 63, we turned west on road 59 to cross the canal (linking Lakes Niegocin and Kisajno) on a stronger bridge, then right on the 592 signed Ketrzyn. We soon turned off, at a sign on the right for the Elixir Hotel and Camping, leading us down a mile of minor forest road to a splendid ACSI-listed camping and hotel, set in a nature reserve on the western shore of Lake Kisajno.

Meeting the resident owners, Tom (from Scotland) and Elizabeth (from Warsaw), we found that the hotel was closed for winter and we had the place to ourselves. As the grassy campsite by the lake had also been closed, we parked alongside the main reception/restaurant building, near a tap and plugged into a socket in the garage. Once again, we had the use of a WiFi signal (albeit slow and weak in the motorhome). It was good to have electricity for heating again, as the night turned very stormy.

14 October 2009   At Gizycko, Poland   Hotel Elixir Camping   (No charge – in both senses!)  

Powerless in the storm! 

Just as we finished breakfast, the electricity went off. Our hosts thought a tree had come down and snagged a power line – not uncommon in these parts – and predicted a couple of hours' wait. The wind increased to gale force, the rain turned to sleet, the side of the motorhome was peppered with minced leaves. We had to struggle to get in and out of the door - and the power stayed off!

Keeping warm by our gas fire, we used the pressure cooker for 'cock-au-van' and the inverter to power a laptop for writing - and later to watch Indiana Jones in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (on a Bulgarian DVD showing all 4 of Indy's adventures in a very compressed form). We needed some light escapism – and a hot water bottle!

We learnt something of the history of the Elixir Hotel & Camping, which dates from the Soviet era. In their 6 years of ownership, Tom and Elizabeth have made major improvements to the hotel's 40 rooms and developed the whole of the 3.5 hectare (nearly 9 acre) site. In the season, there is a restaurant, bar and pool table. Two jetties lead onto the adjacent lake, where they have their own private beach, fishing posts, boats, kayaks, pedallos and an 11-seater excursion boat (see what tomorrow brings!).

The campsite with 40 electrical points (20-amp), basketball, volleyball, tennis court, bicycles and a children's playground all lie dormant in the winter, awaiting the warmth of summer for relaxation and exercise. Yachts and caravans can be securely stored and cars safely parked. Visit www.elixirhotel.com . We hope to return at a warmer time of year, say May or early June, before Polish holidays begin.

15 October 2009   84 miles   Gizycko to Mragowo, Poland   Lorsby Camping   49 zloty

1. Sailing on Lake Kisajno 

Overnight the storm had passed and the day dawned calm and bright. The man from the electricity board arrived to fix a nearby blown transformer and restore the hotel's power: an event celebrated with coffee all round.

As we picked some pears before leaving, watched by the Red Kites soaring overhead, our kind hosts suddenly suggested an excursion on the lake in their 11-seater motor boat. Tom and his 'captain', on their way to rescue some pedallos which had slipped their moorings yesterday, offered to take us with them and include a circumnavigation of the nearby island.

What a treat, with not a soul on the water apart from the wild fowl. The powerful Leyland diesel engine throbbed quietly for an hour, as we edged beyond the reeds that fringe the long shoreline and many islets. We learned that the reeds are cut for thatching - by tractors driven on the frozen lake in winter, when ice-fishing takes over from angling! We were also surprised to learn that beavers (a protected species) live round these lakes and do considerable damage felling trees to access branches, dam ponds and build their lodges. On the banks of the campsite, opposite the tennis court, we saw a tree that beavers had gnawed part-through, having brought 3 others down.

2. Visiting the Bunkers of Hitler and his High Command

It was tempting to stay longer in the superb lake-side setting of Tom and Elisabeth's Hotel Elixir, but we wanted to take advantage of the dry clear day to visit the WW2 German Bunkers hidden away in this remote corner of north-eastern Poland, just 16 miles from the border with what is now the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Why here, in dense forest surrounded by hundreds of lakes? To the Germans, this was their territory: East Prussia. Kaliningrad itself was once part of the German Kingdom of Prussia, conquered by Teutonic Knights in the early 13th century.

A total of 10 bunker-compounds form a circle round the interconnected Lakes Dobskie, Dargin, Kisajno and Mamry. Together, the compounds held the leaders of wartime Germany: Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Borman, Ribbentrop and the heads of the German Army, Navy, Air Force and Foreign Office - they were all here, along with their staff, SS guards, servants and supplies. Each and every one in a reinforced concrete bunker, some with a roof 10 metres (33 feet) thick to protect the German elite from the cold reality outside.

Three compounds are accessible in the thick forest and open to public view: Hitler's HQ known as the 'Wolfsschanze' or 'Wolf's Lair' at Gierloz; the bunkers for the Commander of the Army at 'Mauerwald' or Mamerki; and Himmler's SS HQ 'Hochwald' in Pozezdrze (try www.wolfschanze.com.pl and www.mamerki.com and www.wegorzewo.pl).

Bidding a sad farewell to Tom and Elizabeth, the 'Captain' and Nero, the hotel's faithful fierce-but-friendly guard dog, we returned a mile back to road 592, turning right for the town of Ketrzyn. About 15 miles along, shortly before the town, a right turn is signed 'Wolfsschanze – 6 km'. The tree-lined lane leads east for 3 miles, passing through Gierloz village to a large guarded car park on the left. We paid the attendant 10 zl for a 'Bus' plus 12 zl per person (a total of about £7) and parked by the only other vehicle – a coach ironically bearing the name 'Wagner'. There was a small shop selling Polish souvenirs and booklets about Hitler's HQ (in German or Polish only); guides for hire; a snack bar (closed) and an unwelcoming hotel/restaurant. What purported to be a campsite was a rough area with broken standpipes and vandalised electric points. We decided not to stay the night.

Rejecting the advances of a guide, we decided to take the opposite approach: to walk the circuit of the central zone in reverse order, from finish to start, without reading the details until the end. We wanted to form our own uncluttered impressions of this lunatic asylum.

We walked round the heavily wooded compound in beautiful sun-lit autumnal colour for a haunted hour, exploring the ruins of the wartime Nazi HQ. Astonishingly, Hitler remained here for over three years (June 1941 to November 1944), from Germany's invasion of Russia until its retreat from the Russians. He rarely visited the ravages of the outside world, which his devastation was to drastically damage and change for half a century to come.

The massive slabs of damp cracked concrete, collapsed roofs and twisted iron girders that we stumbled on are the remains of some 80 buildings (50 of them solid bunkers), built to ensure the safety of Hitler and his staff – mostly destroyed by the retreating German Pioneers in January 1945, as the Red Army approached. Originally there was a power plant, central heating system, cinema, tea shop, canteens, even a sauna. The whole, complete with railway station and air strip, was camouflaged, surrounded by barbed wire and mine fields, and guarded by anti-aircraft artillery and elite troops. Some Wolf! Some Lair!

In this central zone the private bunkers of Hitler, Borman and Goering had walls up to 7 m (over 20 ft) and ceilings up to 10 m (33 ft) thick, some of which still stand. The second zone housed the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine Commanders and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while the third zone was occupied by a battalion of Hitler's personal guards and artillery. This Fόhrer did not lead from the front, once World War Two began, but cowered in secret. The only other visitors today were German and we wondered if they felt any of the anger rising in us. When we challenged one family group, laughing and posing for amusing photographs, they simply looked puzzled. Perhaps they just looked simple.

As we left through the entrance, we came to the information board and map, with arrows suggesting a trail round the numbered structures of the central zone (Hitler's bunker being number 13). A display of photographs outside the small museum (closed) showed some of the infamous guests at the Wolfsschanze, including Mussolini. Most notorious was Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, executed (along with 5,000 of his conspirators) after his unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944. It was here, at a meeting in the map room, that the bomb was planted, killing 2 staff members but causing only minor injury to the prime target.

Filled with an intangible sense of gloom, eschewing the claustrophobic atmosphere of a charmless restaurant filled with German voices, we returned to the sanity of our motorhome for a bite of lunch (a Lidl ham!), then continued north-east, following the sign for 'Mamerki Mauerwald  – 18 km'. The narrow bumpy lane deteriorated over the next 7 miles to the village of Radzieje, after which we hit a stretch of cobblestones lasting a slow and bumpy 3 miles! It seems the coaches don't venture this far. After a final mile of pot-holed tarmac, we reached the unmanned and empty car park for Mamerki on the right.

This site, on the west side of Lake Mamry near the Warmian Canal, is the best preserved bunker compound in Poland: originally some 200 buildings, abandoned without a fight in January 1945. Its gigantic bunkers sheltered the Head Commanders of the German Army, including Field Marshall Keitel and the criminally incompetent Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. A new wooden tower has been built above the roof of one of the bunkers and we climbed up to the viewing platform. The woods are so dense that we saw nothing of the other structures below, but the trees were splendid in their autumn hues.

Driving on, we crossed the canal linking the Masurian Lakes a mile later – a peaceful scene, with a few fishermen along the bank. In another 3 miles we met the better road 650 and turned right to Wegorzewo, along an avenue of tall solid hardwoods. At this town on Lake Swiecajty is a First World War cemetery, where both Russian and German soldiers lie.

Turning south onto road 63 for Gizycko, we reached the village of Pozezdrze 7 miles along. Here was Hochwald, the headquarters of the German SS, under the command of Heinrich Himmler, built (as were the others) in 1940-41. The 9 buildings hidden in the woods included Himmler's personal bunker, an underground garage and 2 watch towers, all destroyed by retreating German units. We saw no sign to the site and, as the light was fading and there was still a little snow on the fields, we didn't linger. We had seen enough bunker ruins.

Completing the circuit round the lakes, back in Gizycko after 53 miles of driving, we took road 59 south-west for Mragowo, past the turning for the Hotel Elixir Camping we'd left this morning. It seemed a long time ago – another world, our world, a sane world.

At 66 miles we drove through Byn at the head of yet another lake, its restored castle now a smart hotel. Entering Mragowo 12 miles later, we spotted Camping Cezar conveniently placed on the left but firmly closed. A phone call to Camping Lorsby, 5 miles west of town, was more successful, confirming (in German) that they were open. We continued into Mragowo, then turned right onto road 16, past another brand new Lidl. The entrance to Lorsby (camping, guest house and bar/restaurant) was well signed on the right of the main road. See www.lorsby.pl.

The camping field and facilities, lower down by Lake Sarz, are actually closed over winter but the guest house is open year round. It was no problem to park by the small restaurant, with hook-up from a cabin and use of an excellent heated bathroom. We much prefer semi-closed empty campsites to crowds!

By now it was late and dark – just time for a quick meal (excellent and very welcome plates of pork, chips and salad) before the restaurant closed at 8 pm. The East European diet always centred on 'pig and potatoes' in our long experience, though they are now much better cooked and presented than in the old days. 

16-18 October 2009   At Mragowo, Poland   Lorsby Camping  

Snow and ice!

For the next 3 mornings we woke to a misty view of thick frost after night temperatures below zero. Time for a break: to read and write, to make warming comfort food (soups, pies and muffins) and to finish watching the 'Indiana Jones' quartet. The final recent (2008) offering about Crystal Skulls was sci-fi rubbish, compared with the adventures of the earlier films - especially the third, with Sean Connery clearly enjoying himself as Harrison Ford's Dad! They should have left it there, with the 'Last Crusade'. 

We did take a chilly walk round the large grassy campsite, which lies down the hill by the lake behind us and is bisected by a railway line, carrying one or two trains a day! There is a level crossing on the path to the larger of the 2 camping fields (where the facilities are sited), with a double barrier you lift yourself after looking both ways! It's a beautiful location, with fishing and rowing boats for hire in the season, log cabins to rent and even a sauna.

19 October 2009   136 miles   Mragowo to Nur, Poland   TIR Parking   Free

British Week at Lidl and a bridge too far across the Bug

A fine Monday morning, with a cold sun rather than sleet and rain. We drove back to Mragowo (5 miles east on rd 16), pausing at Lidl about a mile before the town. It's the start of their 'British Food Week' with posters of Union Jacks and Big Ben. Apparently our diet comprises baked beans, Scottish shortbread, malt vinegar, piccalilli, chutney, salt & vinegar crisps, and frozen fish & chips, cod in sauce, scampi and steak pies! No-one else was buying as the unfamiliar food was too expensive to risk. We did succumb to baked beans and as much frozen fish as we could cram into our small freezer, along with the usual staples including bread mix (very good, 5 different types). It's odd that in Polish Lidl stores the alcohol is in a separate aisle with its own pay desk to control sales, whereas vodka and other hard liquor can be bought at every petrol station!

Continuing into the centre of Mragowo, a large free car park was ideally placed just before the junction with rd 59, near Tourist Information. We walked into the pleasant town to find an ATM (of which there were several) and on past a park to the post office, for stamps and a phone card. Then we headed due south, driving into the sun (at last) on the 59, a narrow 2-lane road busy with lorries and the occasional logging truck. At about 12 miles we passed Camping Piecki on the left by a lake (closed from mid-Oct). The Caravan Club guide describes it as 'convenient visit Wolf's Lair' but others are nearer, including Camping Elixir – see entry for 13-14 October above and www.elixirhotel.com.

Road 59 continued south with many road works, through forest and small villages like the railway halt of Spychowo at 25 miles. Ten miles later in Rozogi we joined road 53, still narrow but at least finished. In Mysziniec, a small town at 39 miles, there was a huge church with a flower-decked statue of the late Polish Pope, John Paul II, but nowhere to park. Poland is generally devoid of rest areas out on the road and it can be difficult to find anywhere to stop for a break, except at a restaurant or fuel station. Continuing south through more forest, the few picnic areas were all barred. We finally parked for lunch down a side turning in Kadzidlo at 56 miles. It looked a nice little town, with a busy market, lots of carved wooden figures and a cycle lane in and around the perimeter.

At 68 miles, just before the bridge into the large town of Ostroleka, we turned right onto rd 61 along the River Narew (which continues to Warsaw, now only 70 miles south). We followed it for 17 miles before turning east across the broad river on road 60. In the busy city of Ostrow Mazowiecka at 108 miles we met the E67 highway (Bialystok-Warsaw) and briefly joined the smooth dual carriageway (Warsaw direction) before turning off onto rd 50 southwards. We needed to find a safe place for the night before visiting Treblinka and our map showed both parking and camping along rd 50, though we weren't over-optimistic.

Finding nothing, we turned off at Brok at 117 miles onto minor road 694, east for 7 miles along the north bank of the River Bug to Malkinia Gorna. Road and rail bridges linked this village with Treblinka (the German concentration and extermination camp), just a few miles south of the river. A decade ago we came to visit the site and found the old bridge had height, width and weight limits that all prevented motorhome access (see 24 October 1999). We hoped a new bridge had replaced it by now?

Turning right in Malkinia Gorna onto road 627 (which we could have taken directly from Ostrow Mazowiecka), we crossed the railway line and were then halted by a large 'road closed' sign – the bridge was being rebuilt at last, which meant a 25-mile diversion to Treblinka, via a new bridge to the east at Nur!

With no alternative, we followed road 694 for 10 miles to the bridge, then turned south on road 63 over the well-named Bug. A mile or so later we were delighted to see a large TIR parking/fuel station/cafι on the left, and turned in. It was a very cold clear night – we even filled a hot water bottle!

20 October 2009   32 miles   Nur to Treblinka & return, Poland   TIR Parking

Visiting the site of Treblinka Extermination and Penal Labour Camps

Rain poured from a leaden sky as we drove south-west down road 63 for 3 miles to Ceranow, continuing 5 miles on road 695 to the larger village of Koscow Lacki, where a few market stall-holders were setting out their produce under plastic sheets. This is a remote and poor area: for example, the only phone boxes (even at the post office) are so old that they only take coins, maximum 5 zloty – not enough to call abroad.

Here we turned right on the 627, a very narrow and poorly maintained road leading to 'Treblinka Museum' and then Treblinka village, ending at the River Bug where we had found the bridge closed yesterday. A disused railway line to the west of the road headed in the same infamous direction, through thick forest. Our approach was slowed to a suitable funereal pace as the road surface turned to cracked concrete slabs.

At 13 miles we followed a sign pointing left, across the bed of the railway and through a mile or two of forest to the 'Treblinka Museum of Fight and Martyrdom' (a branch of the Regional Museum in Siedlce). We had no idea what remained at this bleak site, where the ashes of an estimated million people lie deep in the woods.

The large free car park was empty, the downpour continued. A custodian sat in the shelter of a small wooden cabin (open 9 am-7 pm daily), selling entry tickets (2 zloty) and a few publications. We bought the only booklets in English: an excellent guide to 'Nazi German Camps on Occupied Polish Soil during WWII' by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and an informative illustrated booklet (translated into English and French) entitled 'Treblinka II - the Death Camp'. This is the summary of a final year project by 3 German high school students in 2004, working with their history teacher and the Director of the new museum at Treblinka. It resulted in a permanent exhibition at the small museum, now open next to another unfinished building – probably a future cafι or guest house.

We briefed ourselves over coffee, then set out to photograph what remains of the penal labour camp, built by an existing gravel pit in 1941, and the extermination camp added the following year. The Germans had liquidated both by July 1994, destroying the buildings and murdering the remaining inmates.

We walked as far as the site of the Extermination Camp at the railway siding, where a huge monument and a symbolic pyre mark the location of the gas chambers and cremation site. A symbolic Jewish cemetery commemorates the victims with hundreds of granite stones.

Realising that the Penal Labour Camp and Execution Site was over a mile's walk along the 'Black Road', we returned to the warmth of a dry motorhome to await a break in the weather. (From the car park to the far end of the site is 3.2 km or 2 miles.) We drove on into Treblinka village, 3 miles down the road, to see if there was anywhere suitable to park but it was a tiny place with barely a shop. At the end of the road, by the River Bug, the railway lines have been taken up and a new road and bridge from Malkinia Gorna are under construction, which will enable much easier access to the Museum site.

Returning to the Treblinka Museum car park, we ate lunch and visited the new museum building. The exhibition of photographs and information (the project work of the German students at Bielefeld School) was chillingly informative, while the number of articles found at the site was pathetically small. The devil lies in the detail and we were moved by the broken desecrated Jewish gravestones, taken from a pre-war synagogue cemetery and smashed to use for building roads in the camp.

By mid-afternoon the rain had eased and we walked the full horror of the site in a fine drizzle, past the extermination camp and through the woods to Treblinka I, the penal labour camp. The gravel pit remains, near the concrete bases of the many camp buildings – and that is all. A little further along, a huge cross marks the execution site and rows of small stone crosses mark the last resting place of thousands of prisoners, (about half the total number), mainly Polish, who died or were executed here.

As we returned, a group of Israeli visitors had gathered at a memorial in prayer. Back at the car park were the 2 coaches that had brought 2 groups – adults from the USA and young students from Israel – with a police car escort. We left them to mourn and returned to the TIR Park near Nur, having seen nowhere else to spend the rainy night.

The publications made grim reading and cited several websites for more: for example www.muzeum-treblinka.pl  or www.deathcamps.org  or www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/genocide  or www.auschwitz.org.pl . Our own visit to Auschwitz, 10 years ago, is described in October 1999.

It remains incredible that this is what nominally civilised people have done to other people in the 20th century – but it is so. As the last eye witnesses to the Second World War are passing away, we believe the Poles are playing a vital role in preserving such evidence and proof as remains. Not only beyond belief but beyond doubt. 

21 October 2009   93 miles   Nur to Firlej, Poland   Hotel Efes Camping   33 zloty

A surprise campsite on the way to Lublin

Knowing of no campsites on the way to Lublin (where Camping Graf Marina had closed at the end of September), we headed south on road 63, hoping for a break at another TIR Park. We remained above 500 ft on a rainy flat plateau, with russet leaves swirling down after the first severe frosts.

At the first town, Sodolow Podlaski at 20 miles, we drove round a busy square and continued on rd 63, now slightly better and wider but still with no margin for cycling. We remembered the summers of 1989 and 1990 when we'd ridden across Poland in complete safety, with virtually no traffic. Now there are cycle paths inside some of the towns but no provision out on the busy highways, which have only sometimes been smoothed, but rarely widened from horse and cart useage.

Siedlce at 38 miles is a big industrial town, with the smell of pollution hanging in the still damp air. A well-signed Tranzit route led us on a 6-mile circuit to the east of the centre, past factories making concrete blocks with vast car parks for the workers.

The rain began to fall as sleet, then snow, as we continued south on rd 63, crossing 4 railway lines in Lukow at 58 miles. Sadly, the extensive railway network was one of the reasons that Poland was chosen as the site for 8 (eight) major German concentration camps and hundreds of satellite camps.

Keeping south (heading for the sun over a distant horizon?) we turned right on road 19 just before Radzyn Podlaski at 75 miles. A TIR Park, less than a mile along, was a good place to stop for lunch and it had a modern phone box, enabling calls with the card we'd bought. It was now 5ΊC and raining again.

Road 19, with a much smoother surface and a shoulder each side, forked left in Kock at 88 miles. After Firlej village (about 8 miles north of Lublin) we noticed a sign on the left for 'Efes Hotel-Restaurant-Camping', pointing down a short lane to a lake. The muddy campsite field was deserted, the gates padlocked, the 'facilities' closed. Was it worth a walk in the rain to hotel reception? Yes it was! The gate was unlocked and we parked on the gravel path, using two extension leads to reach an ancient hook-up. We had free use of toilets and hot showers in the hotel, where a French group was staying, and we even found that the WiFi signal reached our motorhome. Visit www.efesfirlej.pl.

People in the more affluent west of Europe can't imagine the poverty that still exists in the rural areas of the former Iron Curtain countries, where folk have been left behind in the transition to a city-based capitalist economy. As dusk fell, a couple of men walking through from the lake had spent a finger-numbing day fishing - for food rather than sport - and they were back early next morning. We also spotted a vagrant going through the dustbins by the hotel, picking out glass bottles to get the refunds and – much worse – gathering dirty cigarette ends to smoke. Saddened, we gave him a pair of new trainers (that had proved too small for Barry), a few empty bottles and the price of a packet of cigs.

In need of light relief, we watched a film from our DVD collection: Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in 'Road to Perdition', a very good 1930's gangster movie. Polish TV does show some British and American programmes but (most annoyingly) has a single Polish voice-over, which has us straining to catch the odd word of English. It's cheaper than dubbing or subtitling.  

22 October 2009   At Firlej, Poland   Hotel Efes Camping

A working day

The day dawned dry, bright and cold. As the WiFi signal and hook-up remained good, we stayed on, with time for cleaning and bread-baking, as well as emails and Voipwise phone calls. After speaking to our good friends, Ian and Judit in Budapest, our next mail drop was arranged at their address - our next direction.  

23 October 2009   93 miles   Firlej to Ozarow, Poland   TIR Parking

Visiting the substantial Majdanek Concentration Camp at Lublin

Raining again – should we stay another night? Then we lost the WiFi signal over breakfast (interrupting John Humphreys on Radio 4), as men came to work on the campsite power line. Time to move on.

The wet road 19 ran south through stands of forest (with some logging), separated by flat boggy fields. After 9 miles it neatly bypassed Lubartow, reaching the busy outskirts of Lublin 14 miles later. It was still pouring as we pulled off the flooded carriageway into the car park of Galeria Olimp shopping mall for a coffee break.

A mile later, before the Old Centre of Lublin, we turned left onto rd 835, following signs for 'Majdanek Museum' – the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp, less well known but no less terrible than Auschwitz. We soon turned left onto road 17, passing a Lidl store on the left at 27 miles, just a mile before the Majdanek entrance on the right. An extra horror here is the proximity of the city. This camp is not a remote site secreted in the forest – no, it lies along a main road, where there are now blocks of flats and shops, just a 4-mile trolley-bus ride from the middle of Lublin.

At Majdanek thousands of people from 26 countries (mainly Poles, Russians and Jews) were murdered and the site has remained partially preserved, complete with barbed wire fence, watch towers, barracks and all the apparatus of slaughter – the gas chambers and crematoria. Entry to the site and the new visitor centre is free, though there is a parking fee (we paid 10 zloty for a 'small bus'). We were not the only visitors on this miserable Thursday morning, as a dozen buses filled the coach park and we drove on to the middle car park.

We followed several groups of young Israelis (carrying and even draped in their blue & white flags), as they walked through the exhibitions in some of the barracks. The most haunting was the collection of cages containing thousands of pairs of shoes – men, women's and children's – some sturdy, some high-heeled, some sandals, all now a mouldy black colour. Each belonging to a person who had meekly tied the laces together and handed them over. One of the workshops was labelled 'Schuhmacher'. The cobblers would make any necessary repairs - before the shoes were sent on for German use. These were just the ones which hadn't yet gone.

We needed lunch in the motorhome before walking the rest of the site in a chill drizzle, up to the top car park by the crematoria. A modern mausoleum covers a mountain of ashes - those that had not yet been spread as fertiliser on the nearby SS farms. The Israeli youth were lighting memorial candles and holding services around the edge of the mausoleum and we tried not to intrude, striving to understand what this visit might mean to the grandchildren of that generation of holocaust victims.

Returning to the visitor centre by the main entrance, we bought a booklet but hadn't the heart to stay for a 22-minute film (available in several languages). A display of photographs showed many illustrious visitors to the site: the late Polish Pope knelt and wept, while England's Prince Charles looked suitably solemn. See www.majdanek.pl and www.lublin.eu for more info.

We returned 4 miles along rd 17 to the city centre, turned left and joined rd 19 a mile later, south for Krasnik. The West Europeans had all invaded the city: Lidl, Carrefour, Leclercs, KFC, Pizza Hut, Tesco and Statoil fuel. Lublin's traffic was chaotic, complete with buses, trolley-buses and bendy-buses, and there was a short delay while the police sorted out a small pile-up: 3 cars had run into the back of each other. At least it was a little warmer (9.5Ί C at 3.30 pm), with no wind.

As we drove past muddy fields, the huge turnip mounds awaiting collection at the roadside looked like piles of grey skulls, making us shudder. In Krasnik at 62 miles we turned west onto rd 74 for Opatow. We'd climbed to 850 ft and now dropped again, as the sun made a brief appearance before dusk. The road surface was poor, with 2 deep grooves made by the trucks. At Annapol, 17 miles later, we crossed the Wisla River, the boundary of another region, and the transition to a smoother (though still narrow) road.

It was now after 5 pm and going dark as we reached the junction with road 79 (from Warsaw). A BP service station/TIR park/motel on the right was ideally placed for a night's halt: free of charge and very secure, with CCTV monitor. As ever, the only drawback was the noise of trucks coming and going but that's what a TIR is for!

24 October 2009   127 miles   Ozarow to Krakow, Poland   Smok Camping   75 zloty (5% discount for 3 nights or over = 71.25 zloty)   Altitude 705 ft

To Krakow's inhospitable campsite in the rain

After a fill of petrol and LPG (the first gas bught since Sweden in August), we continued west on rd 74 for 12 miles to Opatow, where we turned south on rd 9/E371. The good main road passed orchards, some with beehives, and onions and apples were on sale along the verges. People standing at bus stops looked disappointed when we didn't stop. But that has happened in Huddersfield!

Rd 9 became narrower after Lipnik, at 20 miles, crossing high flat country (880 ft) with men at work lifting cabbages and picking apples. In Klimantov, another 8 miles along, a ploughman and horse worked a lone furrow. At Loniow, 8 miles later, we turned right on rd 79 following the River Wisla south-west all the way to Krakow.

After Osiek, at 41 miles, the road turned left and promptly narrowed and deteriorated. Long stretches of road works made our lane almost impassable, forcing us to behave like the Polish cars, dodging from side to side in the face of oncoming traffic. This lasted for 10 miles until we crossed a tributary of the Wisla in Polaniec, then continued on surfaced road through rainy forest.

In Nowy Korczyn at 75 miles the left turn for rd 973 to Tarnow involved a ferry across the river with a 5-ton limit, so we kept to rd 79 through Koszyce. It was hilly country (max 900 ft), dotted with farms of hens and ducks and corn cobs drying in the barns. We passed a horse-cart driven by a pair of men, drenched to the skin.

At 103 miles in Wawrzenczyce (pronounce that!) there was a splash of colour. All the roadside houses were selling bright potted plants or chrysanthemums, clustered at every gateway, grown in poly tunnels on the outskirts of the village. Next weekend is All Saints Day, when it's customary in Roman Catholic Poland to decorate the family graves with flowers and candle lanterns.

The volume of traffic increased as we approached Krakow on a busy Saturday morning, the temperature warmer at 12ΊC but still raining. Near the centre at 119 miles we parked at a shopping mall on the right for a fast lunch (choice of  KFC or McD). A mile later we turned left on E77 signed 'Centrum', though we saw nothing of the historic Old Town.

At 124 miles we turned right onto rd 780, heading west along the north bank of the Wisla. The entry lane to Smok Camping appeared suddenly on the right with no advance sign, so of course we over-shot and had to make a U-turn. At first sight it appeared closed (though we'd phoned ahead and knew it to be open all year). The boggy field was roped off and a steep paved drive wound uphill to another small uneven and muddy camping area, under the trees. We managed to squeeze into a corner, sharing the site with a British motorhome (first for many a week) and a Swiss caravan. The unwelcoming woman in Reception informed us of the extortionate price, adding that WiFi cost 20 zloty extra - though it wasn't working.

The heated shower block was welcome, apart from the plethora of notices featuring the word 'Verboten'. We didn't need 4 prominent signs saying that 'Loundering' was not allowed in the wash-basins or washing-up sinks – and why not, anyway? Had we known of an alternative camp near Krakow we'd have left at once, but it was mid-afternoon and still pouring down. Not keen on another TIR-ing night, we reluctantly checked in.

25-26 October 2009   At Krakow, Poland   Smok Camping

Still raining!

It rained steadily for the next 2 days, falling as snow in the higher mountains. Our British neighbours said they had been there through 9 days of rain – they left for Spain! As our onward route led through the ski resort of Zakopane and over the Tatra Mountains to Slovakia, we had to wait for the weather to clear.

We used the time for the usual range of domestic jobs, as well as updating the travel-log and processing photographs for our website. The campsite had a washing machine but no drier, so we draped our 'loundry' on the radiators in the shower block. There is probably a new notice now, forbidding this, as bureaucracy learns from its mistakes.

The cold wet weather didn't tempt us to revisit the city (reachable by a combination of bus and tram, or a cycle ride along a rough cycle path). We had explored Krakow thoroughly 10 years ago (see 27-31 Oct 1999) and were happy to stay with those memories of a quieter time, before it became such a tourist centre.

From our DVD collection, we found Guy Ritchie's first two films – the quirky gangster movies 'Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels' and 'Snatch' - surprisingly funny. Ex-footballer Vinnie Jones was very good in his new career and Brad Pitt played an unlikely Irish 'pikey' with relish! The extra features and interviews made great viewing.

27 October 2009   67 miles   Krakow to Zakopane, Poland   Harenda Camping   50 zloty    Altitude 2,540 ft

To Poland's winter sports centre in the Tatras

Dry at last, we were pleased to leave Smok Camping. The Reception woman even tried to short-change us when we paid – don't ever attempt this with Margaret!

We drove west on rd 780 for 3 miles, then joined E40 (a 4-lane motorway) heading south, across the Wisla River. At 9 miles we turned onto rd 7/E77 for Zakopane: a busy dual carriageway, its flow interrupted by traffic lights and junctions. After an early lunch at McDrive, 4 miles along, we continued south, soon noting a good BP services with TIR parking on our side.

The hilly wooded landscape was very different now: much more prosperous, with regular hotels, restaurants and businesses. No signs of subsistence farming or carthorses here, along this SMOOTH motorway-standard road. From Lubien, at 34 miles, the E77 became single carriageway (still smooth), climbing to 2,650 ft. After 10 miles we turned onto rd 47, dropping a little then reaching 2,000 ft again at Nowy Targ at 56 miles. It was too misty to see the white peaks of the Tatras ahead (the highest mountains in the Carpathian Range).

At Nowy Targ we left the main route to the Slovak border (rd 49), staying on the now more bumpy road 47 towards Zakopane. At 66 miles (and about 3 miles before Zakopane) we turned right, by a petrol station/McDonalds, past Camping Ustup (closed end September), then left over a river bridge to Camping Harenda on the right. It's a small simple site, owned by a friendly resident couple and open year-round. We had it to ourselves, alone among the wooded hills and clear mountain air, with views of the peaks around.

Advised to try the nearby McDonalds for internet access, we walked across with our laptop and bought some coffee. The WiFi proved to be available only to those who joined the Hot Spot in question, prepared to pay with credit card and a full life history – and in any case it wasn't working! 'Problem' – that favourite international word. Walking back, we passed a supermarket, pharmacy and pizza restaurant, all handy for the campsite, and a bus stop (see tomorrow!)

28 October 2009   At Zakopane, Poland   Harenda Camping  

A chilly day in Zakopane

Next day dawned cold – very cold! We waited in vain at the nearest bus stop ('every 15 mins into Zakopane' said our hostess). We walked to the main road and tried to hail a bus there, which sped straight past. Conceding defeat, we hailed the next taxi and were soon thawing out over coffee in Zakopane (another McDonalds!)

The mountain resort, site of the 2006 Winter Olympics, was somehow disappointing – too commercialised and over-priced. It wasn't choked with tourists, between the summer hiking and winter ski seasons, but it had little character. It was also bitterly cold and we felt sorry for the many old women at their stalls, trying to sell some local speciality (patterned bread rolls?) There were still piles of snow around, swept up from recent falls.

We found an internet place in a dark basement on the main pedestrian street and sent a few emails on an elderly computer, which refused to download our incoming mail. After lunch (a good pizza) and shopping for new boots for Barry, we took a taxi back to the campsite. We don't have much luck with public transport!

The rest of the pears picked a fortnight ago, at Hotel Elixir Camping in the Polish Lake District, were now ripe enough to poach (in a syrup of apple juice, sugar and cinnamon). 'Pears Elixir' - absolutely delicious!

29 October 2009   36 miles   Zakopane, Poland to Tatranska Lomnica, Slovakia   Slnecny Dom Guesthouse/Motorhome Parking   €10.00   Altitude 2,800 ft

Over a pass in the Tatra Mountains to Slovakia – and Euro currency!

Eastern Slovakia lies only a short distance from Zakopane, though separated by the High Tatras – the only truly alpine mountains in central Europe.

To cross the range, we drove north on rd 47 for 2 miles, then turned right on the 961 (7.5 ton limit). This road was lined with guest houses, small hotels and restaurants – too many, with still more being built. It was raining as we climbed gradually for 5 miles to 3,110 ft at Bukowina Tatrazanska. Here we turned right (south-east) on rd 960 for the Slovak border, still climbing. Stalls at the junction sold warm woollies and other souvenirs, with more at the top of the pass at 3,670 ft. There was snow along the verges but the road itself was good and clear.

Descending more steeply, we entered the Tatra National Park (which spans both countries) at 9 miles, hair-pinning down to the Slovak border 3 miles later, at 3,200 ft. We would not have attempted this route if the weather had been icy and it may even close in a severe winter. We'd enjoyed spending 2 weeks (and 780 miles) getting to know Poland better, but the next visit will be at a warmer time of year!

The border post was deserted and we paused to read a notice about Motorway Vignettes:

Up to 3.5 tons - €4.90 per week or €9.90 per month

3.5-12 tons (us) - €8.60 per day, €24 per week or €55 per month

As our proposed route didn't include any motorways, we hoped not to need one and continued east on rd 960/67 (still a 7.5 ton limit). There was more snow lying on this side of the Tatras, though the wet twisting road was clear and the mountain tops disappeared in a mist of rain.

At 20 miles in Zdiar – a small village, still at 3,200 ft, with a few guesthouses and a ski-pull on the hillside – we noted the change of country and language: the shop was now a 'Potraviny' rather than a 'Sklep'. The best news is that the currency in Slovakia is now the Euro (since 1.1.2009).

Six miles later, down at 2,560 ft, we turned right (south) on rd 537, climbing a little over the next 5 miles to Tatranska Lomnica. The mountain resort, now complete with Best Western Hotel, cable cars and bobsled run, is very popular in both summer and winter - but not apparently at the end of October. We were the only vehicle on the car park (declared a Bus and charged €3.40 for one hour!) and the Tourist Office was closed. At least the bank was open, to change our remaining Polish Zloty into more familiar Euros, and we found a good map covering the Czech and Slovak Republics at the souvenir shop.

We noticed a small guesthouse on the main road with a sign for a 'Stellplatz' (motorhome parking) but there was no-one home so we headed for the vast FICC Eurocamp we'd used before, 3 miles south-east of town along rd 540. At Hotel Tatranec, along the way on the right, the campsite was closed (whatever the guidebooks say) and – to our surprise – so was the Eurocamp! In fact it looked permanently abandoned, with a sign at the derelict reception door saying it had closed on 1.10.2009. We weren't too disappointed, as it's a grim place.

Returning to Tatranska Lomnica, we arrived at the guesthouse just as its keeper returned from shopping. She spoke a little German and welcomed us to the newly created 'Stellplatz' on the rear car park. It had room for about 4 motorhomes, with electric hook-ups and an (as yet unfinished) water and dump point.

After lunch we took the laptop into the adjacent Tatry Hotel, advertising a WiFi Bar. In fact the bar was closed but the very nice young waiter let us sit by a fire in the empty restaurant to work all afternoon, for the price of 2 coffees!

(to be continued)