Poland

About one-third of this cycling trip -- some 1,300 kms -- has been in Poland (Polska) through the regions of Mazury, Podlaisie and Malopolska. On one particular day I shattered my previous personal best for distance set on my across the USA trip over 20 years ago. In Oregon, then, I had cycled 96 miles (or about 155 kms). On this trip, on 10 August, I achieved 184.5 kms, or 114 miles, aided by tailwind into Lublin. And I wasn't particularly any more tired than usual. My head cold, accompanied initially by a slight fever, which I had through most of Poland, did not seem to affect my riding.

In cycling matters Poland compares well with France, which for me provides the world's best touring. Roughly the same size, both countries have extraordinarily well developed road systems. I've heard it said that Poland has more paved roads than the entire continent of Africa! Unfortunately, I didn't have Michelin-equivalent small scale maps (mine was 1:715,000 - one meter wide), so I only managed a few times to stumble onto Poland's smaller roads; I seemed to get lost on them quite easily. Whereas France has a super-highway system that pulls trucks and impatient vehicles off the N (nationale) and D (departmental) roads, Poland lacks this infrastructure. The Polish 'red' roads - the top of the food chain -- are hectic affairs; they often have cyclable shoulders, but not always. The 'yellow' roads (the color of the highway markers for this type of road and the color of the roads as represented on maps) are much more pleasant, but they usually don't have shoulders, but often don't have much traffic either. The rest of the country('s) roads are not numbered, or color-coded or well-signed and carry mostly locals and farm vehicles. Yet they prove hard to follow without the sufficient detailed map. I found all of Poland's roads to be fast roads -- at least for cycling -- because they are slick asphalt rather than the more repressive tar and gravel. They are the fastest roads -- in terms of raising my km/hr to over 20 -- I've ever encountered.

Poland resembles France in another regard. It has become a major trendy tourist destination. France ranks #1 in western Europe for the number of foreign visitors (the statistics may be distorted by the amount of transit traffic it gets); it is just a matter of time until Poland assumes the same position in eastern Europe (Czech or Hungary probably occupies that top place due to the attractiveness of their capitals). But Poland, not unlike France, has a greater diversity than many of its neighbors, and has a lot to offer, not just a capital city, a few sights and a some parks. Poland has its share of unusual sights (I saw a railed funicular to haul boats between water levels on the Buczyniec Canal, and I crossed a river on a 2-car ferry that was pushed along by the current, guided by a cable), its share of castles (I visited the Teutonic masterpiece at Malbork and the sweetiepie at Baranow Sandomierski), its share of medieval towns (Sandomierz and Kazimiez Dolay were both on my route), its share (more than its share) of reminders of the Jewish extermination (Majdanek Death Camp, which still holds in tack many elements such as gas chambers and ovens and displays a collection of thousands of victims' shoes and a memorial mound of human ashes retrieved from mass grave sites, sits in the Lublin suburbs, overlooked by a stylish apartment complex, complete with TV dishes), and its share of medieval cities (such as Lublin, which is now undergoing UNESCOfication in the style of Krakow, the country's second city and its major tourist destination.

Krakow is certainly worth a 5-day visit -- one day to see the sights and four days traveling to them or waiting in line for tickets. Museums often appear shut rather than open (the latter is only 34.5 hours a week). The crowds don't mind a lot of walking, bussing and waiting, to be rewarded by the likes of the UNESCO-certified Wieliczka underground salt mine; Wawel castle and cathedral complex which for some museums allows only 60 visitors per hour; the former Kazimierz Jewish quarter featured in Schindler's List, but a disappointment if one expects to observe Jewish heritage other than that reconstructed for tourists (including the few Polish Jews who remain). How utterly different the culture of Poland would be today had there been no holocaust. I did not visit Auschwitz-Birkenaw, a day trip away; I had reached my threshold for witnessing the evilness of our species.

Krakow hardly has a cobble stone out of place, its UNESCOness so penetrating. It even smells medieval, thanks to the hansom cabs and horse residue. But as in much of Poland remnants of Soviet thought persist -- one-industry towns that go into shock when the once state-supported industry is affected by reality. My pet peeve this trip is the pricing system of Krakow's busses, something that would be the pride of no less than Stalin himself, with Kafka thrown in. Tickets sold on board cost 13.5% above the price printed on them. A convoluted system of discounts for families, transfers, day passes and the like exists in theory and is blatantly advertised; but these are not sold either on the busses themselves or in kiosks, only at bus terminals. Locals get certain discounts not afforded foreigners. If you are caught with an unticketed backpack, the transit police fine you twenty times the cost of the ticket. Krakow transit authorities should learn from China. No tickets, just drop the exact change into the slot or use a smart card; one price with half-off for children and the elderly; if a bag fits through the doors, it can come aboard and doesn't need its own ticket.

Krakow is by no means tourist-unfriendly, yet its public transport and museums could be considerably more reasonable.

Although I spent 18 days here and stayed with two most generous SERVAS hosts and attended a SERVAS retreat for four days, I have just cycled around he tip of the berg. Like France Poland deserves continual visits to allow further exploration.

Krakow, PL

18 August 2003