Whitlocks Round the World - Travel Diary for Poland

Click here to read the latest newsThe diary of our trip round the world. You can view other diary entries by clicking the highlighted months at the bottom of the page or by clicking on one of the countries visited so far. Click our logo (on the left) to see the most recent news entries. We are adding new entries from Internet Cafés as we travel, so updates may be irregular. Please check back often to see how we are getting along.

Countries visited so far: UK Latvia Lithuania Poland Slovak Republic Hungary Romania Bulgaria Greece Egypt Tanzania Malawi Mozambique South Africa Swaziland South Africa (again) Argentina Bolivia Peru Ecuador Vietnam China Mongolia Russia England

25th August 2003 Poland
Celebrating Tom's birthday - Click to enlargeOn Friday 22nd Aug. we took the train from Vilnius to Bialystok; a long, nine-hour journey, arriving in Bialystok at 8.00pm.

This time we had booked ahead at a hotel, this being a far more practical arrangement if possible than trying to find accommodation after arriving in town. We stayed 3 nights there. The hotel facitities at 'Trzy Sosny' were not as good as in Vilnius, but the staff have been very helpful, although communication in Polish and sign language was difficult at times!

It was Tom's birthday on the 23rd, so we took a bus to the city centre, the objective of the day being to find something he would like to do. He was going on about internet cafes and, luckily, we found this one quickly. He had a whole hour with a computer to himself to play online games; a great treat! We had lunch in McDonalds (Tom's choice, of course), and then spent hours, literally, trying to find a tourist info office, to enquire about activities for children in Bialystok. We eventually concluded that the office didn't exist and resortd to asking people in the street if they spoke any English! At nearly four o'clock a helpful woman in a cafe told us of a hotel which had a swimming pool which was open to the paying public. The pool was glorious, with slides, warm water, a spa, and a sauna and steam room. It was just what we all needed. We ended the day back in the hotel garden playing cards, and Tom decided that this was the 'Best Birthday Ever'!!

27th August Poland
Bialowieza - Primeval Forest
Stump in the conservation area. - Click to enlargeBy Nick We all woke early at the new youth hostel. Breakfast was a good hearty meal as the kitchen facilities there were excellent. I left Lindsay and the kids to finish their breky as I had a 10 o'clock appointment with a tour guide of the strict conservation reserve which was only 500 metres behind the village and would only cost a mere 22zl (about 4 pounds). The guide’s name was Eric and from the start he seemed a passionate naturalist, picking up snails and beetles that were in our path. We went up to the museum and bought entry tickets to the reserve for 5zl (about a pound) and continued our walk to the primeval forest. As we trekked along an open cobbled track, Eric explained just how beautiful the meadows that stretched out before us were in the summer months with a spectacular wild flower display, but it was not disappointing to me as the amount of wildlife activity was something I was not used to in the UK anyway (They were potato and hay fields and they were organic). Eric knew his stuff and was very helpful with my questions on the conservation practices and history as we walked through the little segment of the 625 square km Polish part of the forest. As we walked along a well trodden path the smell of decomposing organic matter and dampness filled my nostrils. The canopy was closed and in some cases 100ft high, I could hear the creaking of trees as they rubbed together in the wind with the most unusual sound (especially for a forester from the UK) dead wood thumping on the forest floor quite regularly. Bracket fungus, mosses and monolithic dead pines were scattered in every direction and the largest Hornbeam specimens I have ever seen. Eric explained that we were standing in the oldest ancient natural forest in Europe. Ever since the retreat of the last ice age (8000-10000 years ago) this forest has stood without any or little human activity. This for me was truly the most amazing experience. To be able to walk amongst these huge standing icons of generations of climax wild woodland felt really special. You can talk about "wild wood" of the past and try to convey what it could have looked like, but I can say I have seen it in all its natural beauty. Today I travelled back in time and I loved it!

29th - 31st August Poland
The Rynek Glowny on a hot day in late August - Click to enlargeKrakow is a fantastic city! We arrived on the overnight train from Bialystok, which wasn't as comfortable as the last overnight journey, as it was more crowded and only 'sitting' tickets were available, but we survived it all the same! Refreshingly, Krakow railway station was all open, for coffee etc. at 5.45am, when we arrived, and we met a couple of English people there as well (Giles and Alex).

Friday was baking hot, and we were amazed at the difference in temperature an overnight journey south could make! Krakow is probably the biggest city we have visited so far and it took most of the day to wander around a route suggested by the tourist office to get our bearings and see what the city had to offer. The cobbled streets in Stare Miasto (the Old Town) are full of little shops and boutiques selling antiques, books, trendy clothes and jewellery. Tourists ride around in trucks like golf buggies or horse-and-carriages. Esther was thrilled with these as they were just like the ones in Cinderella. In the Rynek Glowny (the central square), lots of live street performers ply their trade surrounded by classy pavement bars and market stalls that make up what is effectively a huge craft fair. In the centre of the square is the Sukiennice, the old cloth hall, which is like a long indoor market. This was a great escape from the heat of the sun, and the children liked the wooden toys and jewellery on display. We wandered up to the Wawel, Krakow's impressive castle, which looks as though it has had a new tower or section added in each era of its history, each in a completely different style.

On Saturday we went to one of Krakow's parks where there was a huge open-air photography exhibition: The World From Above, by Yann Arthus Bertrand. It was great. The photographs were incredible and showed many aspects of the world, from a shanty town near Rio de Janeiro, to a nudist beach in France, to a wind farm in Denmark. It kept us intrigued for hours and we would recommend the exhibition to anyone. There was also a huge map of the world, covering an area the size of a tennis court, to show where all the photos came from. We were able to walk around the map, tiptoeing our route around the world! Great fun!

After a sobering wander through the Jewish part of town (the Nazis wiped out 75% of the Jewish population of Krakow), we began to look for somewhere cheap to eat. We found Krakow's 'Bar Mleczny', the milk bar, where the food was fantastic and unbelievably cheap. It was also very Polish, and there was no English help with the menu! It was a case of ordering something and hoping for the best. We all ate a highly nutritious and tasty meal, comprising soup called zurek with potatoes and sausage - this on its own was a meal, and enough for Esther's small appetite - followed by goulacz for me, pork chop for Tom and a slice of a meat loaf for Nick, all served with mashed potato and a separate side plate of salad, for less than 6 pounds!

On Sunday we visited the Treasury and Armoury at the Wawel castle. It was an impressive collection from all over Europe as well as here in Poland. Tom enjoyed looking at the weapons. There were some highly decorated and intricately designed guns and crossbows, and an extensive collection of cannons. Nick thought the collection of big swords was very impressive, and Esther liked the horse regalia and armour.

Later, in the central Rynek, we watched an excellent display of Polish country dancing, which went on all afternoon. We also climbed the Town Hall tower to look at the view.

By the end of Sunday, no matter how lovely Krakow was, we were beginning to tire of the city and long for the slower pace we always seem to find in countryside areas. We decided to head out towards the Carpathians.

1st - 3rd September Poland
The Szczyrk chairlift - Click to enlargeWe told the lady in the tourist office that we would like to head out to the countryside and she suggestd Szczyrk. 'Bless-you', we said! The name of the place is a mouthful, pronounced 'Sh-ch-urrrk' - (remembering to roll the r, of course!) I spent half an hour practising and then went to buy bus tickets!

Szczyrk is at the western end of the Carpathian mountains, surrounded by rolling hills. We found a peaceful room at the top of a tall pointy chalet-style 'Pensjonat' with a fantastic view, for 60 zloty per night (about 10 pounds).

Unfortunately our first day there was rather wet, and it was also very cold, with a northerly wind, so we spent the day in an internet cafe, in our room playing Yahtzee, or in cafes drinking coffee. The next day was nicer, though still cold, and we decided to risk it and take the chair lift up Skrzycne, the highest mountain overlooking Szczyrk (and equally unpronouncable!) I'm glad we did! Although we felt a few drops of rain at times, and it was COLD at the top,we had a fair amount of sun as well. The chair lift was fun, and, from the top of Skrzycne, we took the 15-20km walk back to civilisation. We all really enjoyed it and felt a sense of achievement afterwards. Ilove being in the mountains. It makes me feel peaceful and at one with the world, as well as in awe of it. Thanks, Dad!!

Nick continues:
What I like about the Eastern-Central European countryside is just how well the hiking and cycling trails are marked. The map was helpful but a green or red marker on a post or a tree was an often and reassuring sight. As we trekked across these beautiful mountains it was obvious to me that people do this a lot here. The footpaths were well-trodden and cutting deeply into the mountainside. This erosion is added to by the spring thaw that must gush down the mountain. We had a good opportunity to use our binoculars spotting some Partridge coming out of open grassland and a couple of woodpeckers. These birds gave out a "screech-warble" sound. This was very satisfying and when we eventually returned to our alpine lodgings we were all feeling a little bit tired. The kids were fed and put to bed and later Lindsay and I had roast chicken - take-away from a bar down the road - while quaffing some Polish vodka. It was a great way to end a perfect day.

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