Poland 2019

Quest for a Parkrun Z Day 4 – Dresden to Wroclaw

18th May 2019

Wroclaw Town Square

The drive from Dresden to Wroclaw does not start well; I accidentally set the satnav for Poznan, some 114 miles further north. Luckily, I realise before we’ve gone too far and after two rather complicated figure of 8 junction changes, we are back on track. The old man is not impressed. Luckily, we stopped at Lidl on the way out of town, so I am able to placate him with a sausage croissant.

Wroclaw Street Art

An hour later, we reach the Polish border. It’s not manned – we don’t even need to reduce speed, let alone stop. The only differences, apart from being €53 out of pocket, are that the road signs have changed languages and I finally have 4G.

Wroclaw Town Hall
Wroclaw Town Hall

By 3 pm we are in Wroclaw. We check into our hotel; B&B Centrum. It’s not great – the room stinks of cigarettes and two women are busy spraying it with a sickly air freshener which, frankly makes it worse.

Arriving in Wroclaw mid Saturday afternoon is a bit like coming late to a party, when everyone else is already drunk and you have to decide whether to drink lots in an attempt to catch up or not. Cue a stop at a beer garden…

Cheers from Wroclaw
Cheers from Wroclaw

We take a wander round the old town. There are 300 gnome statues spread around the city – this could keep me amused for some time. They’re actually quite hard to spot because they’re very small and it’s mega crowded.

St Elizabeth's Church
St Elizabeth’s Church

After we are all gnomed our, we stop at a burger joint called Pasibus where I have a mango and chilli burger – an inspired combination. Then it’s back to the hotel for the less tasteful combination of stale tobacco and air freshener.

Wroclaw University
Wroclaw University

Quest for a Parkrun Z Day 5 – Zdiar

19th May 2019

Tatras
Tatras

Today we have a five hour drive to Slovakia for no particular reason other than so the old man can check Slovakia off his list of countries visited. It’s actually only 200 miles, but involves crossing the Tatra Mountains. We plan to stop en route at Oswiecim to visit the concentration camps of Auschwitz.

Stork
Stork

A visit to a concentration camp turns out to be quite expensive. By the time you’ve added parking, entry fees and a trip to the toilet, it’s over £30. In any event, you’re not allowed in without a guide and the next English tour is in three hours. So we depart for Slovakia.

Stork
Stork

We stop for brunch in a pizzeria too far off the tourist trail for English menus to be an option, so it’s a case of pizza Russian roulette. Because of my nut allergy, I rarely buy food without checking the ingredients thoroughly, but I figure I’d have to be spectacularly unlucky to accidentally order a hazelnut pizza. We opt for a Vampira, which turns out to be a really tasty mixture of salami, onion and masses of chillies on a spicy tomato and cheese base. I’m not sure about vampires, but I shall avoid naked flames for a while, as my mouth seems to be on fire.

Drive to the Tatras
Drive to the Tatras

We drive the final 65 miles through picturesque countryside, up into the mountains to the Slovakian border. There is no border control but you know you’re in Slovakia when the nice, smooth road runs out and you’re suddenly bouncing around, swerving to avoid potholes.

Drive to the Tatras
Drive to the Tatras

We reach our guesthouse; Privat Na Vrsku, which is deserted. To be fair, it’s 3 pm and we told the owners we’d arrive around 6 pm. There’s not much to do in this remote area in the pouring rain. So we go to the shop, buy beer and snacks and consume them in the car, hoping the landlord appears before I wet myself.

Welcome to Slovakia
Welcome to Slovakia

We’re in luck. A man turns up and gives us our keys. The apartment, which cost £31 for the night, is huge and clean and bright. It has picture windows and a balcony overlooking the mountains. We had planned to go for a walk, but the view from the room is so beautiful it hardly seems worth moving (and did I mention it’s raining!)

Zdiar
Zdiar

Zdiar is like a ghost town. According to Google, there are several restaurants, but none appear to be open. So we spend the evening sitting in our room enjoying the view over a healthy supper of beer and Oreos.

View from my bed at Privat Na Vrsku
View from my bed at Privat Na Vrsku

Quest for a Parkrun Z Day 6 – Auschwitz and Krakow

20th May 2019

Auschwitz Art
Auschwitz Art

It’s an early start this morning in order to reach Auschwitz before the 10 am compulsory tour guide cut off time. We make it with minutes to spare, although it means skipping breakfast. It feels inappropriate to complain about being hungry in a place like Auschwitz. I fail to gain entry at the first attempt as I have left my passport in the car. Then there is an issue with the spelling of my name on the ticket. Finally, on the third attempt (fourth if you count yesterday), I am admitted.

Arbeit Macht Frei
Arbeit Macht Frei

The camp consists of around 30 blocks, with most of the blocks now forming a museum detailing the history of Auschwitz. Some blocks deal with the history of the camp in general, while others recount the plight of specific groups of prisoners; there are blocks given over to the nationalities and categories which represent those who were imprisoned here.

Auschwitz
Auschwitz

The general blocks contain a series of rooms of items removed from prisoners; there are rooms full of shoes, glasses, toys, suitcases, prosthetic limbs… But most harrowing is the room full of hair. Upon arrival, women and girls had their heads shaved and the hair was used to stuff furniture. For some reason, to me, this room really portrays the scale of the horror of the holocaust. I have been here once before and had nightmares about that hair for weeks afterwards. On the other side of the room is a chaise longue belonging to a Nazi officer’s wife, stuffed with the hair of murdered Jewish women and children.

Suitcases
Suitcases

The corridors are covered with the prisoners’ record cards. Corridor after corridor. Thousand upon thousand of them, each representing a person who died here. When you reach the end, there’s a notice explaining that from 1943, prisoner record-keeping stopped. These people are just the first few thousand of the millions who were slaughtered.

Shoes
Shoes

I try to work my way through the blocks but the number and size of tour groups is immense. I keep getting stuck in buildings and panicking, because I can’t get out. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been to be imprisoned here but I certainly wouldn’t have lasted long.

Auschwitz Art
Auschwitz Art

I move on to the nationality blocks, which are less crowded. Block 14, the Russian exhibition, is particularly interesting. The camp began in 1941 as a prisoner of war camp. In 1945, it was the Red Army who liberated the remaining prisoners. The exhibition charts both the plight of the Russian PoWs and the camp’s liberation.

Auschwitz Art
Auschwitz Art

Particularly mesmerising is the art work of a Ukrainian soldier who was among the liberating troops. He drew sketches of the horrors they discovered on entering the camp. When he ran out of paper, he took some from the Commandant’s office. Instead of turning it over and using the blank side, he opted to incorporate the Nazi letterheads and logos into the drawings.

Entrance to Birkenau

Auschwitz is actually quite small. Once the camp could no longer deal with the numbers being sent, a second, much bigger camp; Birkenau was built. Prisoners were also held here, but it’s main function was as an extermination camp. There is a shuttle bus taking visitors between the two camps.

Entrance to Birkenau
Entrance to Birkenau

At Birkenau, the railway line runs through the main entrance to the rear of the camp, stopping at a platform next to the gas chambers. Many of the Jews sent here were marched straight from the train to the gas chambers, relieved of their possessions/clothes/hair and slaughtered. Their bodies were them cremated. Initially, the ash was used to fertilise the camp gardens, but later it was just shovelled into the nearby lake. The lake is still pitch black with the ash of murdered Jews.

Lake
Lake

Once our visit to Auschwitz in over, we drive on to Krakow and check into the very pleasant Well Well Hotel. I have been to Krakow before, so while the old man goes sightseeing, I spend the afternoon at the launderette. It’s a fairly long and stressful undertaking as there are more people than machines. My British predisposition to queue is at odds with the Polish predisposition to not queue, so it takes a while for me lay claim a washing machine. And then the same palaver with the drier. Finally, the ordeal is over and we return to our hotel for an early night before tomorrow’s drive to Warsaw.

Krakow
Krakow

Quest for a Parkrun Z Day 7 – Warsaw

21st May 2019

Warsaw
Warsaw

The road to Warsaw is indeed mostly road (I had expected motorway but there are only chunks of motorway appearing randomly along the way). Hence the 184 mile journey takes over five hours. It’s not very scenic and I’ve finished my book, so it’s a long five hours. We stop briefly in a Lidl to buy brunch and get attacked by old ladies brandishing shopping trolleys like lethal weapons.

Palace of Culture and Science
Palace of Culture and Science

By the time we reach Warsaw, it’s mid afternoon and raining and the city is masked by a cloud of smog. It takes another hour to fight our way into town (I can understand now why we had to pay an excess to bring the car here – the drivers are batshit crazy) and find our way to the hotel car park, which is in a courtyard surrounded by building works. Finally, we penetrate the maze of fences and bollards (this involves driving down a pedestrian street and through an archway a few centimetres wider than the car) and can check in to our hotel; Mamaison. It’s a nice hotel, apart from the fact it has no hot water until tomorrow.

Palace of Culture and Science
Palace of Culture and Science

I had low expectations of what Warsaw had to offer (my dad told me I’d hate it here) but we have a pleasant afternoon. We start at the Palace of Culture and Science; an enormous building – the tallest in Poland. Gifted by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, it is true to Stalin’s crazy gothic/ socialist realist style. You can take a lift to the 30th floor to admire the view of the city.

View from Palace of Culture and Science
View from Palace of Culture and Science

It takes forever to reach the front of the lift queue due to the huge number of people and our inability to hold our ground in a crowd. Eventually, we reach the top and can admire the views. The wait to descend takes even longer.

Palace of Culture and Science
Palace of Culture and Science

Once down, the old man decides to visit an exhibition of metal sculptures. I opt instead to take a walk around the building. The fact is, it’s so tall, I’ve completely misjudged how big it as ground level (it houses theatres, a cinema, restaurants, museums…) On the way, I pass the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall. Twenty minutes later, I have completed my circumnavigation of the Palace of Culture and Science to find the old man sitting on the steps waiting and huffing.

Remains of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall

Next stop the old town, via the pretty Saxon Park with its lake, gardens and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Saxon Park
Saxon Park
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The old town is very picturesque. After taking plenty of photos, we return to find something to eat. En route we come across a far right demonstration. You’d think with Auschwitz on their doorstep, they’d have learned a lesson about extremist politics, but apparently not. There’s also an LGBT counter demo. And a lot of police.

Warsaw Old Town
Warsaw Old Town
Demonstration
Demonstration

We stop for dinner at Specjaly Regionalne ; duck pierogi and Polish beer. Then back to the hotel to bed. Tomorrow, hopefully after a hot shower, is the highlight of my trip as we are going to Gdansk, a bucket list destination.

Dinner at Specjaly Regionalne
Dinner at Specjaly Regionalne

Quest for a Parkrun Z Day 8 – Gdansk

22nd May 2019

Gdansk
Gdansk

I’ve been looking forward to today’s visit to Gdansk. Having studied East European Studies at University, a visit to the European Solidarity Centre is my highlight of the trip (yes, I know I’m weird).

European Solidarity Centre
European Solidarity Centre

I did not sleep well; yesterday’s pierogi gave me wicked indigestion. But at least the hot water is back so I can have a bath. Suitably refreshed, we set off on the 7/S7/E77/DK7 ‘sometimes I’m a road sometimes I’m a motorway’ combo. It takes from hours to reach Gdansk – we have now driven the length of Poland, from the Tatras to the Baltic. The old man refuses to stop en route, so by the time we arrive, I am so thirsty I feel like I’m going to shrivel up like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Solidarity Monument
Solidarity Monument

Gdansk holds a pivotal place in European history. As the German city of Danzig, it was a major port and shipbuilder. After WW1, it became part of Poland. In 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland, Gdansk was at the top of his ‘to do’ list. In fact, the first shots of WWII were fired here. Then, in the 1980s, Lech Walesa’s Solidarność Movement was the catalyst to the ending Communism in Eastern Europe.

Workers' Hats
Workers’ Hats

We head straight to the European Solidarity Centre; a museum charting the Polish Solidarity Movement which was so pivotal in the overthrow of Communism and the shaping of today’s political landscape. Admission includes headsets which provide a two hour guided tour through the exhibition, giving details about the history of Solidarity. I find it fascinating. The old man opts for a whistle stop tour then plays Candy Crush in the lobby until I’m ready to leave.

Crane
Crane

There’s plenty of memorabilia; items from the shipyard, Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Membership Card, the crane he stood on to speak to workers, the shipyard gates crushed by the militia, the popemobile Pope John Paul used on his visit, etc. I spend hours wandering around, taking it all in.

Shipyard Gates and Militia Vehicle
Shipyard Gates and Militia Vehicle

Once I’m finally done, it’s time to check in to our hotel; Number One. We have received a message from them saying that it is a ‘very new’ hotel and they ‘hope we are up to the challenge’. Sounds ominous. I suspect it translates to ‘you’re sleeping in a building site – we did warn you.’ But it’s actually really nice. We’re on an island in the river, which consists mainly of derelict warehouses, just starting to be regenerated.

Zuraw
Zuraw

We buy some picnic stuff and have lunch on our balcony before walking to the old town. It’s really pretty. The waterfront is lined with original Hanseatic merchant buildings and modern conversions which add to the charm. There’s even the Zuraw, a 15th Century crane, and lots of old ships.

Gdansk Waterfront
Gdansk Waterfront

Inland there are more beautiful buildings including the town hall and St Mary’s Church. To be honest, all the buildings are beautiful (and tall), so I wander around with my camera in the air taking hundreds of photos, wishing we’d arranged to stay more than one night here. But we have to move on tomorrow, so that we’re in a town beginning with Z by Saturday.

Gdansk Old Town
Gdansk Old Town

Quest for a Parkrun Z Day 9 – Poznan

23rd May 2019

Poznan
Poznan

It’s time to start the journey back to Berlin, stopping tonight at Poznań. Mainly because it’s half way, rather than because my guide book enthuses about Poznań – which it doesn’t.

Poznan
Poznan

It’s another four hour drive, but this time we are allowed to stop. To prove we’re really living the dream, we have brunch in a KFC in a motorway service station. If there was a prize for the meal which looked least like the photo on the menu, my cheese wrap would win. I consider whether to try and return the cremated pile of crap in a country where I can’t speak the language, but the old man scoffs it. No matter, I have a bucket of chips.

Poznan
Poznan

After that healthy interlude, we continue to Poznań, which is a lot bigger than I’d expected. And very fond of one way systems. Eventually, we work out that the road our hotel is on, has roadworks in the middle. This means that the hotel, Stare Miasto, it is only accessible by driving the wrong way down a one way street.

Poznan Town Hall
Town Hall

The best thing about our visit to Poznań is that Lonely Planet have set our expectations to low, so at least we are not disappointed. We start in the old town. Poznań’s main tourist attraction is the Town Hall Clock; at midday, two mechanical goats come out of doors on either side and butt horns. But we have missed this, so have to make do with purchasing a tacky fridge magnet with little moving goats.

Poznan Cathedral
Cathedral

We cross the river to Cathedral Island. Here sits Poznań cathedral; the first cathedral in Poland. In fact this spot lays claim to the birth of the Poland. There is also an interactive museum called Porta Posnania, where you can learn about the history of the island and of the Polish Nation.

Self Portrait at Porta Posnania?
Self Portrait at Porta Posnania?

We round off the evening at Stary Browar; an old brewery converted into a funky shopping mall. Here, in the middle of a food court, the old man announces that there is nowhere appropriate to eat within half a mile. I point out that we are in a food court, but he claims that it’s all junk and he wants something healthy. Undeterred by the fact that we’re standing by a salad bar, he sets off across town to find a ‘healthy’ dinner.

Stary Browar
Stary Browar

We end up in a Polish fast food joint, where his ‘healthy’ option consists of a pork escalope bigger than his plate, potatoes and a side of coleslaw. I order literally the worst food I’ve ever tasted; potato dumplings and pickled cabbage. It’s so bad that for the first time in 30 years, I leave something on my plate and old man doesn’t eat it.

Stary Browar
Stary Browar

We stop on the way back to the hotel to buy some beer for the old man and some supper for me, before trying to sleep in the ridiculously small bed. Thank goodness our visit to Poznań is a short one.

Quest for a Parkrun Z Day 10 – Zielona Gora

24th May 2019

I Love Zielona
I Love Zielona

It’s our last full day in Poland and time to make tracks for Zielona Góra for the old man’s coveted ‘Z’ parkrun. We initially intended to go to Żary, but there has been much dispute among parkrun nerds over recent weeks on whether Żary should count as a Z, when it actually starts with a Ż. Some argued that a Ż is just a Z with an accent, while the linguistic purists insisted that in Polish, it is a separate letter of the alphabet. The purists won and thus our travel plans had to be hastily rearranged.

Philharmonic Poznan
Philharmonic Poznan

We stop en route for brunch. I am not over last night’s horrendous food. It occurs to me, that over the years, many people have migrated to the UK and we have embraced their culinary culture. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say; “Let’s go for an Indian/Chinese/Italian” or “I really fancy a kebab/tapas/sushi”. Yet, you never hear; “Let’s go for a Polish” or “I really fancy dumplings and pickled cabbage”. There is a reason for this. Hence, we find ourselves somewhere we rarely go, but can guarantee will be cabbage free – McDonalds.

Winny Park
Winny Park

We reach Zielona Gora by midday. It doesn’t even get a mention in my guide book, but it’s a pretty little town. Winny Park – a former vineyard, is full of pink cherry trees, purple verbena and hundreds of Red Admiral butterflies.

Winny Park
Winny Park

There is also a pleasant pedestrianised old town square. The town obviously takes great pride in its gardens and floral displays. And an added bonus; all around the centre, little drunk Bacchus statues.

After wandering around for a couple of hours, the old man suggests we get some food and asks what I want to eat. This is a trick question and a trap I’m not falling into two days in a row. So we opt for a trip to Aldi and a picnic in Winny Park. Then we check into our hotel; Qubus, and have an early night in preparation for tomorrow’s run.

Zielona Gora
Zielona Gora

Quest for a Parkrun Z Day 11 – Zielona Gora

25th May 2019

It’s Saturday, AKA parkrun day, and the main reason for the trip; the old man running a parkrun beginning with Z. He booked a hotel right next to the park. Unfortunately, not the correct park – that’s two miles away.

We get up after a bad night’s sleep. The Qubus Hotel is rather flimsy; you can hear people walking around on other floors, the bed consists of two flimsy single beds with a double mattress topper. It’s uncomfortable and wobbly – like sleeping on a lilo. The curtains are flimsy, so by 5 am the room is flooded with sunlight and the windows are flimsy, so by 7 am the room is full of the noise of nearby building works.

We get ready and I set the satnav for Zielona Gora parkrun. This takes us to the start – literally. The run takes place in a forest on the edge of town. We follow the instructions past the leisure centre and car park, onto a dirt trail through the forest. After a few turns, we find the ‘start’ sign. We have accidentally managed to drive a lap of the course.

Zielona Gora parkrun
Zielona Gora parkrun

We retrace our route to an actual road and park up somewhere more sensible and return to the start on foot. Everyone is very friendly (there are four more British tourists). The route is two scenic laps of the forest trail. The sun is shining and it would have been a lovely morning.

However, shortly before the finish, I trip and land flat on my face in the dirt, taking the impact on one knee. It hurts so much I want to cry. My Stfava helpfully announces; “Activity paused”. It certainly has. I manage to get up and hobble across the line.

Knee

We return to Qubus and have breakfast with the other Brits. The somewhat eclectic buffet claims to contain 100 items. We briefly discuss if we can be bothered to count. Then it’s time to check out of the flimsy hotel and hobble off to Berlin for our flight home.

Hobbling round Berlin Airport

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