Archive for the 'Poland' Category

Trapped in a Winter Wonderland

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

The alpine weather in Zakopane is not working in our favor. The day after our hiking expedition it started to rain and has now been raining non-stop for 48 hours. The mountain trails we were just hiking on are now buried in snow! I still have a lingering dread of wet slippery roads – especially hilly roads – after the Laos accident, which means we are essentially stuck here until the weather clears up.

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There was a new development at our campsite when we woke up this morning. Sleet! The temperature is hovering right around freezing and a thin layer of ice is forming on everything. Now we really don’t want to ride out of here on icy mountain roads!

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We’ve been killing time at warm cafes, sipping cappuccino while researching modern tent design and pondering when we will be able to leave. We’ve been reading up on tents because we’ve realized ours has a serious condensation problem. We dry it out before we go to sleep and when we wake up the floor of the tent is soaking wet. Not a good combination with our down sleeping bags! Luckily, the women’s bathroom at our campsite has some warm radiators so we’ve been able to dry out our mats and sleeping bags during the day.

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I have also been testing my skills at drawing Jamie’s portrait using the materials of ballpoint pen and notebook paper. So far I have titled my creations “Cro-Magnon Man”, “Skeletor”, and “Droopy Forehead”. There are lots of portrait artists on the street here and I have a growing desire to set up shop among them and draw people’s portraits while muttering to myself “Oops!” and “Oh…sorry!” I imagine this would be hugely entertaining.



Wandering around the city center, we are infinitely jealous of all the tourists who we imagine have warm snug rooms to go back to in the evening. We keep telling ourselves it wouldn’t be so bad if we were dry. I guess we’ll find out soon enough; it looks like winter might be arriving early this year!

Alpine Adventure

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

We woke up yesterday to a damp morning, but the weather forecast predicted no rain so we decided to head for the hills and do some hiking in Tatra National Park.

We started off hiking through the forest and met Princess Toadstool along the way.



After about an hour of walking, we broke through into a meadow with views of the peaks we were heading for.


After that it was a steep uphill climb to the ridge at 1900 meters.



Sarah got mad at me because we were passing too many people. What can I say, I was born to crush souls. Especially when nasty switchbacks are involved. I shouldn’t feel too proud though, half the people we passed were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes at the top.


We dined on some of our mountain cheese at the top and enjoyed the spectacular views.


And then bounded off along the ridge, pretending we were a couple of Chamois. Sarah was disappointed that we didn’t spot any real ones.




It was chilly and wet at the top. Sarah almost succumbed to hypothermia when we were posing for this shot.


Normally, there is a gondola that runs up and down the mountain, but it is currently under renovation. That was bad news for us, because we both hate hiking downhill. It would have been great to hike around on the ridge some more and then take a 20 minute ride down on the gondola, but instead we had a three hour descent to look forward too. At least we got to descend through a gorgeous valley.



Towards the end, the trail deteriorated into some sort of torture device for a tired hiker’s feet. Sarah was dying to meet the person who thought that jagged rocks were a good hiking surface!


Today we are relaxing and tomorrow we head for Slovakia and then Croatia where we will travel for two weeks with our friend Sean.

Climb to the Tatras

Saturday, September 1st, 2007

After three days of riding, 164 kilometers, and 1,950 meters of climbing we have arrived in Zakopane – the gateway to Tatra National Park. That’s 102 miles and 6,398 feet for those of you who are not impressed with the metric system! The ride to get here was one of the most beautiful stretches in Europe so far. We rode over many miles of rolling foothills and then finally broke through to a huge plain which lead up to the base of the mountains. Our pictures don’t do it justice!

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The last day included the most climbing, but thankfully the gradient wasn’t too steep so the ride was enjoyable rather than torturous. As we got closer to the actual mountains the locals we rode past began cheering, whistling, and saying things to us that we couldn’t understand but by the tone interpreted as “You guys must be crazy, the hills up ahead are going to absolutely maul you!” The last time we had people expressing this kind of astonishment was when we were about to climb the highest paved road in New Zealand and I certainly suffered quite a bit during that climb! At one point I slowly cycled up a hill past an older man who was walking down the hill and he gave me a salute and then reached out and patted my leg. I think he wanted to get just a taste of my mighty climbing power!

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In the mountains we rode past a road-side cheese smoking house. We couldn’t pass up this chance to see the traditional Polish Oscypek cheese being made, so we stopped in. There were two guys sitting outside a small wooden hut. Inside the hut was a big cauldron of milk boiling away over a very smoky fire. Set up in a row on a rafter above the fire was a row of cheese being smoked.

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We ended up buying two types of cheese. The darker one is fully smoked and looks almost like a loaf of bread. The lighter one is a squeaky fresh cheese that is only lightly smoked. They each have a design imprinted on the outside. As for taste, they are both really salty and strong tasting…I’m not sure how we’re going to eat it all. I think we walked away with about 4 lbs of cheese!

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Here’s Jamie, testing out the new cheese.

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Jamie has been quite the photo-journalist the past few days. He finally succeeded in getting the elusive “bicycle rider in the mirror” shot that he’s been working on for 8 months!

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He’s also accomplished at creating a rustic senior picture type atmosphere. This is how he amuses himself while I am taking a shower.

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Today we are in Zakopane at about 1000m about sea level. The highest peaks in the Tatras are 2600 meters. The town of Zakopane itself feels like a touristy ski-village. We’re staying in a campsite just outside of town and planned to go hiking today but it is raining and cold. Tomorrow’s forecast looks much better, so we are hanging out in a cafe today working on things like this journal! Tomorrow we test out our hiking legs. We’re a little scared after our experience tramping in New Zealand!

UNESCO Trifecta

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

We just visited three UNESCO World Heritage sites in less than a week! Not bad for a couple of pedal pushers!

The biggest tourist draw in this region of Poland is Krakow. It’s like Wroclaw, but not as colorful. That was our impression at least.


We almost didn’t come here actually. A couple of days ago Sarah tried to convince me that we should just head for the Tatras Mountains and bypass Krakow completely. We had veered too far south into the mountains and were way off course in terms of getting to Krakow. The area of Poland west of Krakow is the most heavily populated and you could definitely feel it on the roads. Even the smallest roads on our detailed map were filled with cars and trucks, so we had been forced south in our attempts to avoid being run over by an 18-wheeler. But, being UNESCO geeks, we decided we could not afford to miss the largest medieval square in all of Europe. So, we pushed on and spent two days sightseeing in the city.




Sarah was really on a roll in Krakow. Comments made by her included the following.

James – “They tore down the medieval city wall and built a park, since the wall wasn’t needed in modern times.”
Sarah – “That must have been before the Germans decided to pay a little visit.”

Sarah – “An onion is considered a fresh vegetable here. That is actually insane.”

We came here by way of Oswiecim, better known by it’s German name of Auschwitz. We didn’t realize that Oswiecim was Auschwitz until we actually arrived there.

“Hey look, this sign says straight ahead to the center. Hey look … that’s a … concentration camp.”

Oswiecim has also easily taken over from the tricycle graveyard as our spookiest camp site ever. The campsite itself was great; new and modern. But it was literally across the street from the former concentration camp. It made for a strange night looking across the street at the imposing buildings and listening to the trains go by.

In the morning, we walked around the grounds of the camp. Unbelievable is the only way to describe it. We have already visited Dachau and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, but we were both awed by the sheer scale of Auschwitz.

The ride to from Oswiecim to Krakow didn’t have much of interest except for the giant bird’s nest we saw. Sarah keeps telling me there are supposed to be storks all over this region of the world but we haven’t seen one yet.


As Sarah mentioned, we have fallen into quite the food rut here. Yogurt and muesli in the morning followed by bread and cheese for lunch. The bread and cheese bit has been posing some problems for Sarah as she has been setting new records in terms of messy eating. Check out this slovenliness.


It’s so bad, pigeons have started circling her like sharks every time she dines on crusty bread.


After Krakow, we headed south to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. I didn’t take any pictures (here are some other peoples’ pictures on Flickr), but Sarah and I both agreed it was pretty amazing. And it better have been too, it cost over US$20 per person to get in!

We are continuing south now and are actually nearing our fourth UNESCO site, the UNESCO biosphere reserve of the Tatra National Park. We are maybe 100 kilometers from the park and the hills are already killing us, so here’s to hoping we make it there with our legs in once piece! In addition to the terrain, it feels like the weather is changing too. We’ve noticed a definite chill in the air these last couple of days. Better break out all the cold weather gear we’ve been carrying but have barely used!

Perogie Heaven

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

Our first day out of Wroclaw was distinguished by its extreme winds. It was also very sunny and hot, so we could sometimes feel thankful that the wind was keeping us cool. Other times it was just annoying. The winds were blowing to the north and we were riding to the south but somehow we managed to ride 110 km in spite of the wind! There aren’t many campgrounds in Poland so we are attempting to plan our routes between campsites. The 110km took us almost 7 hours of riding. The terrain was very flat, but the winds took their toll and I was pretty tired by the time we arrived.

Dinner was one of the best we’ve cooked for ourselves so far. We had Perogie Ruskie, which are dumplings filled with potato and cheese. We fried these and then topped them with sour cream and fresh tomatoes. It’s Polish-Mexican fusion! Yum!

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We woke up the next day and did another 110km! After eyeballing the map I’d expected the next campsite to be within 80km but as it turns out I was off by a full 30km. This second day of riding was distinguished by extreme rain rather than wind. I can’t decide which one I hate more.

Here I am, soaked to the bone. FYI, our rain jackets have officially stopped working. My new theory on outdoor gear is that none of the products are nearly as durable and tough as the promotional material claims. Instead all outdoors companies are banking on the fact that 1) people will never actually use the product enough to wear it out and 2) even if they do wear it out, most people won’t bother to complain about it. Bah!

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Here’s Jamie. He had steamed glasses for most of the day:

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We ate the usual bread and cheese for lunch. On days like this it is tough to stop for lunch because the bad weather makes you feel cold as soon as you stop pedaling!

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The scenery was mostly flat farms – really pretty on a rainy misty day.

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The snails were out and having a grand old time in the rain.

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After another 7 hours of riding we arrived at a campsite near the city of Rybnik. I was feeling really tired after two long days so we are taking a rest day here before continuing on to Krakow. We had potato dumplings for dinner, and then dessert was more perogies. This time they were blueberry and cheese – delicious!

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Sightseeing in Wroclaw

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

Jan gave us a ride into the city of Wroclaw in the morning and gave us some advice on what to see. The city was really beautiful, we spent the first half of the day sightseeing.

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The second half of Saturday was spent running around from post office to the DHL Office in a frantic race against the clock to collect our replacement gear before everything closed for the weekend. We needed to pick up our replacement sleeping pads from REI as well as two replacement tent poles from Mountain Hardware. First we visited the post office for our mats – they were not there yet. We were really frustrated because they’d been shipped 14 days ago and were supposed to arrive within 10. This delay meant we’d have to stay in Wroclaw until Monday to make another attempt at pick-up.

Next we needed to visit DHL to pick up the tent poles. First we tried to call the offices to make sure they were open and the tent poles were there. Only the fax picked up. We decided to hop on the bus and ride to the offices to try our luck. This turned out to be an unwise decision. After a 40 minute bus ride deep into the suburbs we arrived at the completely deserted offices of DHL. We crossed the street and sat and the bus station and waited for 1/2 hr for a bus returning to the city. During this wait I had to go to the bathroom so badly that I was reduced to peeing behind the bus station shelter. Obviously this trip has really blurred the lines between human and animal behavior for us – I would have never done something like this before the trip!

We spent one last evening with Jan eating his delicious food and watching Abba videos together. The next morning we set off for a campsite to wait out Sunday. On Monday morning we resumed our mission to claim our replacement gear. First stop was the DHL office. We rode our bicycles rather than the bus this time, but were met with bad news again. Our packages weren’t there. The DHL guy was really helpful and called his friend at FedEx, who looked up the tracking number and gave us a phone number to call so we could find the address our package was actually sent to. This address turned out to be the Post Office’s – same place our mats were supposed to be!

Considering the one week of back and forth we’d had with Mountain Hardware where they insisted they would not ship to a Post Office, this was more than I could take. I was officially infuriated and turned into a raving maniac about poor customer service for the rest of the day. We went to the post office next. Once again they didn’t have our mats or our tent poles, but this time they told us that the Post Office address we were looking for wasn’t them. Thanks guys, wish you would have let us know this last time we visited you! Some might say this is our fault for not matching the addresses correctly, but I was not expecting for there to be literally three post offices on the same street within 3km of each other! Anyhow, raving aside, at the post office 1 km down the road we were able to pick up our packages. Turns out the Mountain Hardware tent poles were accidentally FedEx’d to the office building next door which is where some very kind person signed for them and then walked them down the street to the Post Office where we picked them up. Talk about a lucky break (thanks five leaf clover!) – if this small delivery accident hadn’t happened we’d have never gotten our tent poles.

To top it all off, Mountain Hardware forgot to send us two poles like they’d promised. We just got one. I’d like to dedicate a few final words to a customer service stank rank:

#1. DHL – our package wasn’t shipped through them and it wasn’t delivered to their warehouse, either. The employee helped us out anyway by calling FedEx and pointing us in the right direction.

#2. REI – responded to our email about the defective sleeping mats within 24 hours, and sent replacements to us 24 hours after we gave them an address!

#3. Mountain Hardware – took one full week to respond to our email about the defective tent pole. Took another week of back and forth to agree on where the pole would be sent. Conversations went exactly like this:

Me: Filled out a “Contact Us” form
M.H.: Please contact someone else, I’m on maternity leave.
Me: WTF?! …sent another email to a sales address from the website.
M.H.: Um, sorry about that. How can I help you?
Me: Our tent pole broke. The other was hit by a car. Can you send us new poles to this Post Office address.
M.H.: FedEx can’t ship to the Post Office, sorry.
Me: OK, here are the three options I came up with. 1) FedEx the poles to a Mountain Hardware retailer in Wroclaw. 2) send the poles via DHL to this specific DHL address in Wroclaw. 3) don’t use FedEx and send the poles via regular mail to the Post Office.
M.H.: OK I will do the DHL option.

End result: Mountain Hardware went with a bizarre ‘hybrid’ option previously stated as impossible – using FedEx to ship to the Post Office – WTF. My final assessment is that they meant well and did replace our tent pole for free, but the execution needs some work.

All griping aside we were really happy to get our new gear. We left Wroclaw the next day with a new tent pole and new sleeping mats to get us through the colder autumn months!

The Road to Wroclaw

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Our breakfast smorgasbord at the hotel in Swidnica was delicious, although I think our perceptions have shifted a little bit over the past few months because it wasn’t quite as spectacular as we’d hoped. Here’s what I think is going on: in New Zealand we were eating oatmeal for breakfast every single day. When we got the chance to eat toast, cereal, eggs, pastries, and more at the hotel during our forced layover between Auckland and Singapore, we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. All that food practically made up for the canceled flight and one day delay! Here in Europe we’ve been eating more than just oatmeal every day. When we stay with families we get to eat meals with them, which is wonderful. Also, we can usually afford to buy bread, cheese, muesli, and yogurt because they’re not as expensive here as they were in NZ. Yogurt is only 50c for 500 grams, and you can buy generic bags of muesli for only $1.

After breakfast we visited Swidnica’s World Heritage church. This is the largest wooden religious structure in Europe. It was built after the Catholic-Protestant war. The Catholics won the war and told the Protestants that they could build a church if it met the following conditions: built outside the city walls, made of impermanent materials (wood, clay, or straw), and finished construction within one year. So the most impressive fact is that people managed to build this gigantic structure in only one year and it is still standing.

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The pretty city center of Swidnica:

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We followed bicycle route 9 from Swidnica to Wroclaw. I was fed up with attempting to follow bicycle routes, but for some reason we decided to give it one more try. R9 was fairly well signed and we only got lost two times on the way to Wroclaw.

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It was grey and rainy all day long which made the 85km seem to last forever. Ugh.

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We arrived soaking wet and an hour late to the home of our couchsurfing host Jan. I felt a little embarrassed hauling our soaking wet bags and bikes into his apartment, but he was extremely friendly and sweet about it all. Jan turned out to be an excellent cook. We love food, so his efforts were very much appreciated by us! He had a delicious three course homemade Polish dinner waiting for us when we arrived. We had homemade tomato soup with cheese first, then chicken with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut, and finally a homemade dessert that was sort of like a warm gooey jello filled with tart cherries.

Sarah and Arthur (a cousin of Jan’s who was there during our stay):

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We chatted with Jan and Arthur over a glass of wine after dinner. We had a lot of fun listening to them say Polish words that have an amazing number of consonants but almost no vowels. They sounded more like buzzing bees than people speaking. They also taught us how to say a few words. For example, the city name Wroclaw sounds nothing like we thought it did (Row-Claw or Raw-Claw). Instead it is pronounced something like Vrote-Suave.

In this picture I am looking up Polish words in the dictionary and asking Jan how to say them.

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We went to bed early to get ready for a day of sightseeing in Wroclaw.


Thursday, August 16th, 2007

Good news everyone – our luck is changing. The day Jamie got his new FORT bike I found a very rare five leaf clover! Not kidding, I think this is a once in a lifetime find. And to my brothers: I do not need you writing to tell me that a five leaf clover is actually bad luck…I know you were thinking it!

After getting the new bike we set out for Adrspach-Teplice National Park. We camped near the park and spent two days hiking around exploring the gigantic rocks. The first day we’d cycled most of the day and did a short loop trail in the evening. The next day when we went back during the day we realized we were lucky to have visited the park outside of peak hours – it was packed full of Czech and Polish tourists and was an absolute madhouse. We did a longer hike through the park on the 2nd day. Many times the trail narrowed down to tiny staircases going up and down through the giant rocks. This was horrible because the trail was absolutely packed with hikers, so we’d all march along slowly in a long line. The BO problem we noticed in other parts of the Czech Republic was operating to full effect in the tight quarters of the stair-marches.








We found a nice campsite only a couple of kilometers from the park, but there were no picnic tables, so we spread everything out on the ground for each meal. I think we shocked the entire campground by doing this; people could not get enough of us. They walked past our site to stare at us, and then craned their necks to start some more. It feels like we blend in here because we don’t look very different from the Czech people, but we get started at a lot so there must be something very interesting about us… We just don’t know what it is.


After two days of hiking we left Adrspach-Teplice this morning and headed for Poland. We crossed the boarder at a “bicycle, pedestrian, and environmentally friendly wheelchair” crossing. There was no guard, no passport inspection, just a red and white painted pole that we walked past.

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We cycled about 50km to the city of Swidnica where we spent over an hour searching for a campsite in the rain. We finally found what appeared to be the city’s campsite but it was deserted and locked up. It was getting too late to search much longer, and the countryside did not look promising for free camping – lots of open farm fields and fences. So we ended up in a way too expensive hotel. This is the first time we’ve tried to find camping and ended up in a hotel. We’re annoyed at the budget busting price, but we are also looking forward to the included breakfast smorgasbord!