1. Hiking in Zakopane
2. Cycling in the Polish Tatras
3. Humm… you have a very nice bike!
4. Can we put our tent in your garden?
5. Two days with Szymon’s family
6. On the way to Przemyśl
7. Four days with a Polish family
8. Heading to Ukraine
After reaching the Slovak village of Sucha Hora, we cross the Polish border and cycle South until Zakopane. There are a lot of cars on the road because it is a long weekend in Poland and Zakopane is a very trendy destination for tourists. Some Polish people told us that “during holidays, half of Poland is going to the Baltic sea and the second half is going to Zakopane”.
The villages we cross in Poland seem to be much richer than the ones on the Slovak side, this is probably due to the fact this region is so touristic in Poland. By the road, there are wonderful villas and big wooden houses with gardens.
Zakopane is nicely located at the foot of the Tatras, but during the last kilometres to town we felt very far from the mountains, cycling on the pavement by a never ending line of cars, we breathed more exhaust gases than fresh air 🙁
JP: I was cycling last year on the same road when leaving Zakopane. I recognized by the road the bacówka where I stopped last year (bacówka is a hut where they smoke cheese from the mountains) so we went in to get some freshly smoked sheep cheese. In Zakopane we are hosted by Justyna and Kuba. They were hosting me last year on my way across Southern Poland and we became good friends. Unfortunately, this time Kuba isn’t at home but I am really happy to see Justyna again. Justyna and Kuba are some of the friendliest people I met on this journey.
Tina: On the way to Zakopane I just really wished to take a shower and have a good rest. However, when we arrived I was so happy to see Justynka again and so I had in a moment enough energy to prepare with JP some mousse au chocolat and ratatouille! And yeah, we tasted also some really good Polish beer “Naturalne piwo Zive” 🙂
Zakopane is a great place to go hiking in the mountains so we decided leave our bikes for a couple of days. The first day, we hike to the beautiful lake of Czarny Stan Gasienicowy. Even though the weather isn’t ideal, we manage to climb up to Karb, a mountain near the lake, before it gets swallowed by clouds.
In the bustling town centre, you probably won’t get swallowed by any cloud but you might get annoyed by hundreds of tourists, souvenir shops and restaurants doing their best to look authentic. After a quick stroll in the busy streets, we hurry back home a bit disappointed and search for an interesting route we could follow until the Ukrainian border. The next morning we are happy to get on our bikes again, ready to cycle in the most mountainous region of Poland.
On the way from Zakopane, we stop again in a bacowka and meet an old couple. The man is sitting in front of the hut, smoking… His wife is knitting on a bench inside the smoky room while the cheese is getting smoked over the fire on the opposite wall.
We buy two small pieces of cheese and a cup of fresh sour milk.
After eating this delicious cheese, we meet there two cycle tourers – a German man and an American girl – who are cycling around the Tatras. They are heading to Slovakia while we are heading north, getting further from the mountains.
JP: Even though I cycled in this area last year, the scenery amazed me much more this time. Last year the weather was cloudy, and when I took the road going to Slovakia, I actually missed the most scenic part of the ride in this region.
When we get further from the mountains, the view on the Tatras becomes more and more beautiful. We are lucky that the sky is so clear today. Many times we stop by the road, look backwards to the mountains and we can’t refrain a “wow!” of amazement. So far, this is the most breathtaking landscape we saw since we left Czech Republic.
Tina: The beautiful view helps me a little to forget about the pain in my left knee. On the bike, I have time to think of all the stupid things I did to my knees when I was younger… Since we spent the cold night near the Vah river in Slovakia, it doesn’t stop to hurt. I only hope it will get better in a couple of days.
After we climb to 1100 meters, we take a small road going downhill to some villages. The life in the villages is very far from the masquerade of Zakopane. No tourists here, but couple of tractors, horses and people working in the fields. We are very happy to find something a little bit more authentic.
Later, when we cross a river in the valley, we cannot resist and go for a dip in the fresh mountain stream. The water is actually really cold but it’s a great refreshment in this hot day of cycling in the hills.
After this short break we reach an other village and climb a 12% steep road which leads us once more to 1000 metres. On the top of the hill, the view on the whole chain of the Tatra mountains is so amazing that we decide to stop here for the night. We cycle to the closest farm and ask them for water, then we find a place in some fields and start preparing a couscous in front of this wonderful panorama. We are so happy to be here…
Sitting in the grass, we drink tea. The sun is getting closer to the horizon, colours are fading, the night is falling slowly, the stars start to appear in the sky, so many stars… It will not rain tonight. We will sleep without tent, tonight our room has no walls, the grass is our floor and the sky is our most beautiful ceiling…
When wake up early the next morning, we are nicely surprised to see that there’s no dew, which means no drying of our mattresses and sleeping bags.
We eat another couscous while watching the mountains. We aren’t so found of couscous that we like to eat it for breakfast, no, we just need to buy some more food 😉
We start the day with a long ride downhill. It is pleasant but soon big grey clouds are coming and we cycle under the rain. The Tatras are now behind us but the region is still quite hilly and this time we really didn’t choose the easiest road. When we reach the small town of Krosclenko nad Dunajcem, we stop for a moment to buy vegetables and, when we come back to our bikes, a man is standing there and tells to Tina: “Humm… you have very nice bike!”
Tina: One thing that can spoil my mood is JP in a bad mood. And when JP is hungry, he simply is in a BAAAAAAAD mood. Yeah, while looking for wi-fi connection and coffee, you sometimes become really hungry, especially, if it is since the early morning that you hope: “Maybe in the next town…” and than you say the same at noon and in the afternoon you are still walking all around with your laptop trying to steal someone’s unsecured connection 🙂 So there comes a new strategy: Instead of dreaming about what you can do next, look around and enjoy what you can do now, in this moment and place. That is usually how the unusual things happen and what makes each moment of your journey exceptional.
We are now following a river in the valley, a much easier ride between the hills. When the weather finally gets better, we find a place to eat by the river. In the afternoon we receive a message from Mira, a Couchsurfer who kindly invites us to stay at her place in Nowy Sącz. The last kilometres before Nowy Sącz aren’t really fun. The air is quite heavy today, there are a lot of trucks and cars on the road and they leave us very little space to cycle, our eyes itchy with dust and our lungs quite unhappy to breathe so much disgusting exhaust gases.
Mira is working in the city cultural centre. She prepared for us some home made pierogi! a kind of polish “ravioli” which can be either fried or boiled. We spend the whole evening talking together.
Tina: Even though I enjoy our cycling with all the baggage, I must say that when Mira comes to pick us up I wish I could at least for a moment look as elegant as her on her light “city bicycle” 🙂 It was great to spend the evening together, taste “pierogi with kasha” and learn some new Polish words!
The next day we hide in a café on the main square of Nowy Sącz. It’s raining like hell… When things get better, we buy couple of vegetables in the market and leave the city. On our way out of Nowy Sącz we see some very nice street art. One of the graffiti is a painting of the former pope. Jan Pawel II was Polish and most people in Poland loved him a lot. We often see pictures of his face by the road or statues of him in cities.
Since we don’t have a proper map of Poland, we are only drawing our itinerary on some monochrome printouts. This is sometimes a bit confusing because there are very few signs between villages. In Jamnica, we stop by a house to ask for directions and a woman on the balcony is calling her daughter. A minute later, her daughter explains us in a perfect English: “No, this is not the road to Florynka, you have to go back but… why are you going to Florynka? You should go to Zakopane!
– Oh, we were in Zakopane and now we on our way to Ukraine…
– Did you take a week holiday? two weeks?
– Actually we are on a longer travel, we are cycling now from the Czech Republic and…
– Oh really? Don’t you want to come in for a coffee or a juice? Do you need anything?”
This time, we refused the invitation because there was still a long way to go that day, but not everybody is that friendly with us. In the afternoon, we are waving at some people in their garden to ask them for direction, they were standing in front of their big and nice house but when they we wanted to ask them something, they simply got inside and closed the door. This is very unpleasant to be ignored in such a way but we know it is mainly the fear of unknown who pushes some people to simply avoid any situation which is unexpected.
JP: I have been thinking a bit about behaviours. How do people perceive us on the first moment? Travelling by bike is still unusual for most people and when we go to talk to somebody in his garden, I often see in their eyes that they really wonder what we want from them, but as soon as they realize we only need tap water or to ask for direction, most people forget about their suspicion and they are even really happy to help us. Every day we are in contact with locals, entering their house to refill our bottles, sometimes asking people to sleep in their garden, and we really feel that people are generally really happy to help. So why do some people avoid us? Where does this fear comes from? Comfort? Comfort helps us to avoid unknown situations and eventually every situation involving contact with others… Do we really trust more in things than in people? I don’t know if it’s that simple but comfort makes it easy to get the illusion that you don’t need the help of anyone to live and to do what you want, little by little you forget how good it is to trust and help others. Worse, you start to be afraid of others because you only know others from TV or newspapers…
When it is getting dark, we decide to ask a man if we can put our tent in their garden. Once he understands what we want, he immediately agrees and is very nice to us “No problem! No problem!”. He brings us a bench and many times he comes to ask if we need tea or coffee.
The next day we continue to cycle in the direction of Krosno. The Carpathian chain is very close in the South and and the region is still very hilly. Even if the landscape seems quite monotonous, we try to enjoy the pastures and forests thinking of the more arid regions to come…
Tina: Sometimes, I ask myself from where comes the energy to go further. Well, it has definitely nothing to do with the number of cereal bars we eat because they are all expired!!! We bought them last year and didn’t want to throw them away 🙂 Now, seriously, I wonder how come there are days you climb terrible roads and still have a smile on your face whilst other days you feel exhausted and want to kick your bike and leave it by the road.
I have noticed that cycling in the big mountains becomes often easier because you see the top and when you turn your head you see the road behind, which makes you feel some progress. I still remember the hard roads in Albania we cycled last summer with the most beautiful view. It then becomes more difficult to cycle on the small hills up and down surrounded by forest, especially, when it changes to be just up and UP… you know the feeling when you hope that behind the next curve it will go finally down but then you see a car coming and from its speed you can already guess that it will continue up again. In such moments it’s more about the mental energy you have than the amount of calories you ate.
In the afternoon, the weather is really warm and humid. We see big storm clouds on our left and on our right. We are thinking we will avoid it but soon we realize that we are actually cycling on the wrong way! At the crossroads half an hour ago we asked a woman and she ensured us it was the right road but it looks like she was wrong…
Well, most of the villages aren’t on our map, this is why it took us quite long until we understood we should turn back. Finally we were lucky and got just a few drops 🙂
In the evening we are warmly welcomed in Moderowka by Szymon and his family. We found Szymon on Couchsurfing and he seemed to be a very interesting person so we were really glad to have the opportunity to meet him. Szymon is an architect. He recently made a short break in his career to travel and spend some time with his parents and his two brothers, this is why we are today welcomed at their family house. The whole family is incredibly kind with us. They offer us a room and bathroom in a separate building and Szymon’s mum cook for us some absolutely delicious meals.
We spent two days with them and it is really hard to summarize in couple of sentences how good we felt. Everybody was very caring. With Szymon we visited Krosno and had a look at the famous glass factory. The town centre was pretty nice and we bought there some polish caramels (called Krowky) which we keep for cycling when it is hard 🙂
Tina: Hanging around the “bazar” in Krosno makes me think of my childhood when there was in my country still a lot of these open air markets where you can buy everything from repair tools, fruits and vegetables to children toys. In the nowadays super-hyper-megamarkets you won’t see people talking or bargaining the price neither sellers giving sweets to kids for free; and the overworked cashier probably won’t even try to smile and wish you a good day in order to make you come to her again. No, I’m not dreaming, such things really existed before and apparently still exist in some places. I think it’s a pity that every single thing becomes so isolated from others. I mean, look at the products we sell – each of them has to be packed in a box or a plastic bag, everything is separated and it has to look perfect. And what about us, people?
Szymon was hitchhiking from Poland to Iran and he also did numerous other trips in Europe so he had a lot of travel stories to tell. He was riding a motorbike without light at night in the streets of Isfahan, hitchhiking a gay truckdriver in Turkey and camping on the stage of a cinema in Kosovo 😉
JP: I was amazed that Szymon has been reading Nicolas Bouvier in Polish! Bouvier is my favourite travel writer and I didn’t even know some of his books had been translated in Polish. Szymon also recently cycled to Budapest from Krosno and he took some roads I followed last year, across Prešov, Košice, Miskolc and the mountains in Northern Hungary.
JP: When we finally leave Moderowka, the whole family is wishing us good luck and a nice travel. They are waving at us… On my bike I feel light, simply happy that we meet so friendly people 🙂
After being treated like kings during two days at Szymon’s family, we are back on the road. Thanks to Szymon’s mum, our panniers are full with sandwiches and apples. We’re now heading to Przemyśl, a city close to the the Ukrainian border. We are cycling north of the Carpathian chain but the region is still very hilly.
JP: Most of the people we met in Poland told us that they don’t drink the tap water. However, we don’t want to support the industry of bottled water and we believe the water isn’t so bad in villages so we usually stop at some old people in the countryside to refill our bottles. This is also a good opportunity for us to talk to people living in villages.
At dusk, we stop and settle in a field on a hill. The panorama of the valley is very pleasant so we happily unpack our food and start preparing dinner. Well, actually that was a pretty special dinner. Our bread got rotten in our panniers, the box where we store our dried chilli mysteriously opened in our pan set and the whole chilli was spilled all around. A moment later we realize that our cheese is totally melted because of the heat so we get ready for some culinary experiment and prepare a “soup” with asparagus, melted cheese, raw carrots and a lot of chilli 😉
That night, when the sun passes the horizon line, the sky turns red like blood.This is one of the most beautiful sunset we have ever seen.
JP: At night, I am woken up by Tina who shakes my sleeping bag: “JP! JP! There’s a car!”
It takes me couple of seconds to realize then that there’s something lighting the tent and we hear a very loud engine. Obviously there’s a car just near the tent! I wonder who the hell it can be, it’s 3 in the morning! We are listening carefully but nobody seems to get out of the car and after a while the car finally leaves… I keep an ear open because now we hear some people outside. I’m afraid that somebody would steal our bikes so I get out of the tent, standing in the dark for a moment, a millions of stars lighting the sky above me… Later another car comes, same scenario, they light the tent and leave. Then a third car… yes, I slept very badly that night!
The next morning, we continue our ride to Przemyśl with empty stomachs. We haven’t any water neither food and Sunday morning isn’t really the best time to find some opened shop in Eastern Poland, so we cycle hoping to find some shop on the way…
Tina: I wonder if there is any single traveller who has never experienced this : you eat the last muesli bar, the last slice of bread and the last dehydrated soup in your bag and you go to bed with the same feeling as usually ’cause you will, of course, buy something the next morning, but…! Oh yeah, it’s been weeks you haven’t seen any calendar and life is so beautiful when you don’t know what day it is today 🙂 I’m thinking about adding this to our travel tips “check if the shops are open on Sunday before you eat everything you have!” 🙂
JP: Later that day, I am taking a photo in a village when a local cyclist stops next to me. Tina is some 50 meters ahead and the man didn’t see her, he just asks me in Polish if I am heading to Przemyśl. I nod, so he tells me that he knows a better road than the busy one we are following at the moment. He explains me that if I have time, I should come with him. We have plenty of time and we are delighted to meet locals so we will follow him. I am really glad I understood most of what he said to me in Polish, at least I realize that learning Czech is useful not only in the Czech Republic 🙂
Tina finally joins us and we start cycling together. The man invites us for a beer with a guy who’s in charge of the ferry across the river. The is the kind of unexpected moment we like. Despite the language barrier, we manage to discuss together and even laugh sometimes. Later that day, after cycling together, we are invited to his place for a coffee and to meet the rest of the family in their nearby summer house. They even offer us some soup and some apples for the way.
Tina: After a bit of practice you can make conversation with very few words (and a lot of gestures 🙂 ). I’m amazed and also incredibly happy that JP is using his knowledge of Czech again and again in Slovakia and now in Poland. Learning Czech finally doesn’t seem so useless as many foreigners living in the Czech republic think.
By the way, do you know what happens when you exhaust all the words you know? People start to offer you more things to eat and to drink and everybody keeps smiling. That’s also how we tasted some home-made orzechowa rakija 😉
Couple of kilometres before Przemyśl, we stop in the village of a family we contacted via Couchsurfing. Ania and Wit have tree kids: Nika, Konrad and Wiktor who’s just 5 years old. The whole family is really friendly and they tell us we can stay with them as long as we want.
Tina: For me it’s the first time to be hosted by a Couchsurfing family and it is so nicely different. Being hosted by a family, you can experience an ordinary everyday life, which actually make your stay really special.
Wit, the father, is very interested in the local history and he gives us a lot of information about the region. What he tells us is so interesting that we become very motivated to visit Przemyśl and the surroundings of the city. In Przemyśl, there was a lot of different religions. Ukrainian Orthodox, Polish Catholics and Jewish lived together for centuries but after the second world war, Ukrainians living in Poland had to leave Poland while Polish people who were living in Ukraine had to emigrate to Poland. People had to leave the villages on the border and most of them are empty till these days. These are “ghost villages”…
During our second day in Przemyśl, we take our bikes without luggage and go to explore some ruins of forts from the First World War. They are located in the countryside, in the surrounding of Przemyśl. These forts were really massive buildings but they were abandoned for almost a hundred years and they turned into ruins. Nowadays, most of them are still standing but they are pretty much covered with vegetation.
JP: Couple of years ago, I did a little bit of urbex with a friend in Paris but since I left France, I had only little opportunity to explore abandoned places. I was really excited to put my headlamp on and sneak into the old corridors of the forts. We sometimes had to crawl in tunnels because some parts were really damaged and reaching the other side of the fortress we would feel like in the jungle, threes all around and lot of spider webs 😉
We explored four of them that day, then we cycled to Przemyśl and enjoyed probably the best ice cream in Poland in café Fiore.
We finally stayed four days with Ania, Wit and the kids. We were cooking some French specialities, playing with the kids, discussing about Poland and we really had a great time.
Sitting in Libera café in Przemyśl (a really great café by the way), we are spending our last hours in Poland. Ukraine is only an hour by bike from here but right now we don’t know much how it will be. We have just decided to visit Lviv before we go to mountains but we don’t know anybody who could host us there. So we are contacting people on internet while eating really great pancakes and some nice smoothie and a pumpkin soup…
Tina: Don’t think we are not objective after a couple of weeks on the road – in Libera cafe they really have an exceptional cook. This was just the best pancake of my life! I think that if we stay in this city any longer we will become very very very fat 🙂 So, let’s hit the road again!
Later we are standing with our bikes in the queue to enter Ukraine. People around us are carrying very old backpacks and black plastic bags filled with on old trolleys. They are most probably carrying alcohol and cigarettes across the border… The place is filled with dust, nobody smiles. We are a bit wondering if we will be allowed to cross with the bikes but the Ukrainian officer simply looked at our passports and stamped it without asking any question.
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