A Travellerspoint blog

Poland

Bring on the tomatoes

sunny 25 °C
View London to Warsaw by Bike on bhambidge's travel map.

I've enjoyed giving my knowledge of German a lick of paint over the last couple of weeks, and it became more useful further east as less English is spoken. I found myself able to have basic conversations with ease, if not with accuracy.

Now it was time to crank the next language into gear, but the effort of doing so is like not having a working clutch. Yet again I was surprised at how quickly the language shifts among locals; just the other side of the bridge I heard elderly residents passing the time of day in German, now I could hear teenagers swearing across the street to each other in Polish.

My first practice was to order some lunch in a cafe, and I treated myself to one of my favourite dishes in Poland, placki po wegierksu z surowka (potato pancakes with goulash). The prices were also very amenable, both compared to Germany, and the prices I was used to in Germany. A pint of beer in a bar was half the price than the capital, for example.

Within five minutes of being in Poland, the sun came out, and for the most part it was to stay that way for several days; literally a warm welcome. However, I was really somewhat anxious about this stage of the journey. I'd not thought about it too much until this point, but I knew very well what Polish roads were like, and more importantly what the traffic and drivers were like. I wasn't likely to see any cycle paths outside the towns (and those in the towns would likely be in a bad state of repair) so I'd be sharing the road the whole way.

I just wanted to get to Warsaw now; it seemed so close, but the distance still to tackle was depressing. I could go the direct route 470km east to Warsaw, or I could meander around following the marked R1 route as far as was useful, but this increased the distance massively to nearly 700km.

Barring the route itself, information about the R1 in Poland was sketchy, but it beat the lack of suitable details of any other route, so I chose the long way round. Someone had at least decided this way was as good as any for cyclists, so I may as well trust in that.

I set off out of Kostrzyn, and immediately noticed the difference. Cars and lorries roared past, usually giving a reasonable berth but occasionally a whisker away from me. Every few kilometres, a cross and some flowers or other memorial would mark a fatal accident at the spot, making me feel particularly mortal. If there was a time that I felt wearing a helmet would be sensible, it was now, though I reminded myself grimly of the other statistics about how much use they really are.

Fortunately, after 10km I turned off this road to a much quieter one, and then nearly fell off my bike in surprise when I saw a cycle path running alongside the road. This wasn't what I expected from Poland! It only lasted a few kilometres, and is apparently one of the few rural segregated lanes in Poland. It seems somewhat out of place on such a quiet country lane.

The signs I'm following in Poland

The signs I'm following in Poland

I passed through small villages and towns, and kept going until the odometer ticked up to 110 km. The next couple of days passed similarly, staying at cheap hotels, occasionally pausing for breath or a quick meal, putting over 100km behind me on three consecutive days. I sneezed my way through Pszczew, Krzyz and Trzcianka (a pint of Zywiec to the first non-Polish speaker who can pronounce those correctly), and noted how few touring cyclists there were compared to Germany. In fact the occasional others that I saw were all German, following the R1 route.

I passed through the remote town of Miedzyrzecz, which is Polish for irony, then had a fantastic stretch of excellent road with almost no traffic. The reason? Ahead the road was closed, and the diversion was nearly 20km long. I hoped that, as with previous roadworks, bikes could get through even if on foot, otherwise the trip back to the diversion point would be even more depressing. Eventually I reached it. They were rebuilding the bridge over a river, and it was clearly not passable, by anyone. My heart sank, but I asked around and was told there was a shorter route round, just half a mile back. This was an incredibly bumpy, sandy, stoney, muddy track that abruptly crossed railway tracks a couple of times, but eventually led me to the other side of the bridge, and I could continue once more on the empty road.

Blocked!

Blocked!

Soon after, I met a couple of German cyclists; we'd stopped at the same bar for a drink. They were doing the R1 in the opposite direction, so we were each a source of invaluable information to the other. Unfortunately, this meant my brain had to somehow switch back again into German, which it was reluctant to do, so the conversation was somewhat stilted. I left there in much higher spirits, knowing that the road surface ahead was generally good, where to watch out for heavy traffic, and so on. I realised that I also felt more positive than I had done because it was the first extended conversation I'd had with anyone for a few days. I missed Couchsurfing!

I continued to follow precisely the R1 route, as it had generally served so well, except for a recommended diversion that the Germans confirmed. Often the road was fairly monotonous, though nicely undulating without being too strenuous, and with the good weather made it easy to cover the longer distances. It was frustrating to realise that I was at times going in precisely the opposite direction from Warsaw. But the alternative was to risk roads with an unsuitable surface, or too much traffic. Even a tarmacked road with loose chippings was a problem, particularly in the heat as the small stones both slow you down and get stuck to your tyres, even trying to pierce holes through them.

Villages came and went, and villagers came and stared. Dogs barked from behind fences, and then eventually I had my first chase, a little thing yapping at my feet, keeping up with me until the road turned downhill. Compared to Germany and the Netherlands, the towns and villages looked more impoverished - economically, culturally and architecturally.

I stopped for lunch in one village where a cafe or resturant was marked on the map, but the small bar I found was closed. Further along the road, a shop marked as a cafe was open, but by cafe, all they meant was that you could buy bottles of beer, and sit outside and drink them. This was a true village shop though. Among the small selection of bread and traditional Polish cold meats, bottles and packets, were trays of nails and screws, sold loose by the kilo like a sweet shop for Jim'lls. In the corner sat a woman on a stool in front of a fold-up table, with the hand-written sign 'bank'.

Outside, blue postboxes were numbered in a row. People here don't have letterboxes on their doors; they walk down the road to their box on the corner of the street to collect the mail. The postman has the key to a big lid, each covering dozen boxes, and drops the mail in. Each resident has the key to a padlock to open a forward-facing door to retrieve the mail. Simple but ingenious - until that is you want someone other than the postman to deliver you anything. Until recently, in my flat in Warsaw, if the building administration people wanted to send me anything, they couldn't push it through my door or pop it in my box. They'd go down to the post office, and sent it registered mail to be delivered back to me.

I keep questioning whether I can now be bothered to keep going. I feel like I'm almost there, yet it's going to take more than a week to complete the section in Poland. There's less of interest to see here - I know Poland quite well, have visited all the interesting places, and rural western Poland really isn't it! But its still nice to be here, back to hearing Polish spoken all around, and I remind myself that it beats sitting behind a desk. The sun has also been out since crossing the border, and that gives me cheer and drive to keep going.

My third night in Poland was finally with another couchsurfer, after several days of anonymous paid-for accommodation. Hania and family were putting me up for the night. I had originally expected to get to Pila by Saturday, but the long distances I was doing got me there a day early. It was tempting to press straight on the next day; like reading the last few chapters of the book, I was keen to race to the finish line. But I also knew I'd need a rest - it had been over a week since the last day off the saddle. Not only were saddle sores still evident, but my hands needed a rest - since the Harz mountains I've started getting occasional numbness and tingling in my hands, apparently known as handlebar palsy, caused mainly by the constant vibration, particularly on bad surfaces. I've taken to wearing padded gloves the whole time, but really a day off would help. So I stayed for two nights, enjoying the excellent company and hospitality.

All Hania's family are geographers, cartographers or in tourism. Her Dad was responsible for signing the R1 along most of its route in Poland. We discussed my dilemma of having no route after I leave the R1 before Bydgoszcz - I want to avoid the main roads, but want to ensure that the alternatives are suitable for cycling. This is a problem, as there aren't as many side roads as in England, and many that are there are heavily damaged or stony or sandy tracks. We pore over the maps we have, and they make phone calls to colleagues, and fetch leaflets from the office, and we piece together the most likely route. It's still speculation of course, but a very educated guess, though beyond Torun it will be worth me checking in there at the tourist office to see if better local information is avaiable.

Saturday morning is a very leisurely time. The only time on the saddle is to pop round the corner to get my bike serviced. Large enough towns are far more spread out here than in Germany, and it would be a shame to have a problem at this stage. I've noticed a hole in my tyre, and I'm not sure if I should do anything about it. The mechanic's first response is that it's a big hole and that I risk a puncture. But he quickly follows it with the advice that any replacement tyre he can supply will be far inferior to mine, and one hole aside, it's in good nick. The hole hasn't pierced through, so he sets about reinforcing the weak spot with a patch on the back. He then prides himself on ensuring that my gears and brakes are tuned to perfection, not letting it off his stand until he's perfectly satisfied. I think he's enjoying the pleasure of working on a bike of good quality rather than the rustbuckets he normally sees.

Saturday afternoon starts with a wander around town. Pila was bombed in the war, so there's not much to ee, though it is actually a very pleasant town, with lots of greenery, a river, and easily the best town cycle paths I've seen in Poland. Later in the afternoon, we go kayaking on the river. The second time in a week! This is Hania's family passion, and they live right by the river. Fortunately, I manage this time to go in a straight line. I'm convinced there must have been something odd about Florian's boat in Potsdam.

Kayaking on the river

Kayaking on the river


Hania

Hania

All the conversation is in Polish, and I'm pleased by how much I manage to communicate - or maybe it's testament to their politeness as I vomit out a random stream of disconnected morphemes, and they nod sagely as they pretend they can reconstruct them back into a meaningful sentence.

In the evening, Hania has some friends round for a bonfire in the garden, and we roast sausages on long skewers, and drink beer until the small hours. An excellent day off; I'm glad I didn't rush off.

But next morning, the final 400km awaits. It's time to finish what I started over three weeks ago.

Cooking sausages on the fire

Cooking sausages on the fire

Posted by bhambidge 06:49 Archived in Poland Tagged bicycle Comments (4)

Turn right for Warsaw

sunny
View London to Warsaw by Bike on bhambidge's travel map.

I'd had a great time in Pila, but was ready to get going - Warsaw was still a frustrating 450km away, though it felt like it should be round the corner. I'd programmed in the route we planned to Bydgoszcz - now it was time to see if it was actually suitable.

The first part of the day, I was still following the R1, mainly down some small country lanes. While it didn't look like there were any hills, there were several ups and downs, the effort of slaving up the hill pulling the weight of me, the bike and the luggage, rewarded by a swift dash downhill, only then to repeat the experience, just as a kid goes up and down a hill sledging in winter.

As the landscape opened up, dozens of dragonflies buzzed around me, joining me for several kilometres of the journey. I made sure I kept my mouth firmly shut - we all know what happened to the old woman who swallowed a fly, and I didn't want to find out what happened to the cyclist who swallowed a dragonfly.

Most of these roads were very quiet with only the occassional passing car. But for anything busier I'd made some attempt to improve my safety a couple of days back. Soon after arriving in Poland I decided I needed to ensure I was more visible. A high-visibility jacket would be a nuisance to wear, and uncomfortable, but make me a lot safer. The problem was finding one, and in the first town I stopped in, there was little more than little shacks selling second hand clothes and shoes, and a discount German supermarket. The supermarket wasn't very big, but I decided to check anyway, these chains being renowned for always stocking completely random things, and sure enough, there amongst the clothes pegs and drawing pads was a 'high-visibility pack'. No jacket, but better - I now have a clip on belt to strap round my stomach, an arm band, and some stickers for my rear bumper.

A couple of hours in and it was time to leave the comfort of the signposts that I'd been following since I first crossed the North Sea at The Hague. Turn right for Warsaw. Before I did, I detoured up to the main road to find some lunch, and then because it was so close, I just had to go to Bagdad. A tiny hamlet of about three houses, and no fridge-magnet shop or even a kebab shop called 'U Saddama', the surroundings were all a little too green and lush.

Made it to Bagdad. Its a bit green.

Made it to Bagdad. Its a bit green.

So how did the unknown route pan out? Most of the way, it was great. Asphalt for the majority, and some of it brand new, and I could really whizz along. But then all of a sudden I felt like I actually had arrived in Baghdad. Sand! I tried cycling through it, occasionally succeeding in going 100 metres, but that was luck. Usually I'd just wobble and start to tip over. Even pushing the bike through it was like treacle. Then it would look shallow enough to try cycling again, but soon there'd be a random pothole underneath to sink into.

Fortunately, these streches only lasted a few kilometres in total, and I made it to Bydgoszcz after 110 km. However, getting to Karolina and Dawid's flat, where I was staying the night, added on another unexpected 10. They lived just the other side of the canal... but despite being within the city limits, bridges crossing the canal were extremely scarce. The weather had been kind to me all day, but I just caught the start of the evening rain that was to turn into a thunderous storm during the night. Apparently. I slept through it completely.

The next day and I was off to Torun, home of gingerbread and Copernicus. I stopped in Bydgoszcz town centre for a breakfast of waffles and ice-cream (well, why not?!), and then looked for the rural route to Torun. There was apparently a marked route, but who knew what it was like? Certainly it must be preferable to the two main roads, the only alternatives.

Again, I'd programmed what looked like the most viable route into my GPS, and weaved my way out of town towards the northern bridge. However, I obviously hadn't done a very good job of it, as I found myself suddenly on the sidde of one of Poland's rare expressways, a dual carriageway with central barrier so there was no turning round. I had no choice but to continue, and my sat nav was telling me to turn left after nearly a kilometre. This ws an abrupt turn into the forest, but the track it had marked didn't match the realities of the tracks on the ground. I was now basically lost - I could follow my nose through the forest, or head back to a fast highway that would take me in the wrong direction for who knows how long. I chose the forest. It wasn't fast-going along the bumpy tracks, but at least they were only rarely muddy, and no sand. I was relieved to find my way out after about 20 minutes. I then soon saw a sign for the marked Bydgoszcz-Torun route, and decided to follow those wherever possible and treat my electronic device with the contempt and mistrust it had earned.

As with the day before, the route was mostly on good asphalt roads, but it was the sections that weren't that really made the day difficult, and today was a short one at only 65km. Long sandy sections through the forest were made worse simply by not knowing how soon you'd be out of it, and whether there were any better choices to make. Each time you emerge from it back onto easy road, you hope that it will be plain-sailing from here on, but it inevitably isn't. The worst was a kilometre section of basically a building site, with small sharp stones piled up across the length of the road. There was no diversion, or even any indication of the roadworks in advance. To go back and try another possible sandy path would have been 5km just back to the last junction. I tried to cycle over the stones but with little luck, and was again pulling my load not knowing how far I would have to do this. Eventually I emerged through, and soon after had a choice - continue through the forest, or pop onto the main road, aka Suicide Alley. Drained, I chose the main road.

This picture doesn't do justice to how difficult it was to cycle on

This picture doesn't do justice to how difficult it was to cycle on

I spent the afternoon in Torun firstly in the Tourist Information office, trying to fnid out about recommended onward routes to Warsaw. Basically, there weren't any. To the next town, Wlocwawek, there was a choice of suicide or sand again. Beyond that, they couldn't tell me anything; it was outside their region and I'd have to ask in Warsaw. They didn't seem to grasp the irony that once I'd got to Warsaw, the information would be completely reduntant. So with the help of some map and phone calls, I plotted my own roundabout route to Plock, and on to Warsaw. I spent the rest of the afternoon with a beer in the pleasant main town square. Despite threatening to, the rain stayed away - I ended up not using my coat once on the bike in Poland. Knowing how everyone has been complaining about the weather across Europe, I've not done badly to avoid it on the whole.

Torun

Torun


Donkey in Torun

Donkey in Torun

In the evening, when she was back from work, I went round to Joanna's house, my tenth couchsurfing host I think. We walked back into town for some pancakes and a beer, and she showed my round the town. I'd been here before with my Dad for a day or two, but she took me to some interesting out-of-the-way places with unusual histories; if ever she needs a career change, she's got an obvious talent as a tour guide!

Still 250km to go, I planned to be in Warsaw in two days - am ambitious target when I had never intended doing over 100km/day, and 120km was my longest so far. But despite raining every night, the days were dry, and I hoped to be on good surfaces for the rest of the way, with or without trucks and maniacs skimming past me whisker-close. I set off early - on the road before 8am. On the way to Plock, I put in 70 km before I stopped for lunch, with only two brief roadside pauses for banana and chocolate fuel. If there was anything much of note about the landscape or area, I didn't notice it; I had my head down, concious of the distance. The afternoon was harder, slower going. I divided it into two 30km stretches, hoping for a cafe or bar at the midway town. Approaching it, my knees were starting to complain, and I had to go slower and slower, crawling into Dobrzyn nad Wisla to find little more than a mini-market and some park benches. With no shame, I lay down on one of the park benches, and promptly fell asleep. I'd intended to rest for half an hour at the most, but before I knew it, I'd been there a full hour and it was time to crack on... 32km to go. Fortunately, the knees had accepted the rest, and I reached Plock soon after 6pm, my final Couchsurfing host, Kamila, waiting for me with a welcome meal.

We popped into town to see the sunset over the river, and have a drink in the town square, but I couldn't stay awake long. I had 120km to pedal to reach Warsaw, and I wasn't sure I could manage that again. In the morning I woke to sunshine, but howling winds. Oh well, nothing for it.

First job was to get across the river. The route looked obvious - there were 2 bridges, one nearby and one a few kilometres back, so I picked the obvious route and cycled round to it. When I got to the approach road, I realised that it was a busy dual carriageway. Kamila had told me there was a bike lane on the bridge, but it appears not to exist on the 2 km leading up to it, and there was no pavement. There was some wasteland along side, and I saw a path running through that, so decided to take it. Naturally, though, the path soon turned into a dirt track, then sand, then simply nothing at all - I was cycling over rough grassy thorny terrain. I was no longer alongside the main road as it was down a steep embankment, so I perservered as I was still heading towards the bridge. Eventually, the road got closer to me again, and with no sign of the path returning, I scrambled down what was left of the embankment, lifting the bike over a couple of ditches, and onto the narrow hard shoulder. As the bridge got closer, the hard shoulder disappeared, and I was now cycling in the main carriageway, traffic zooming past at terrific speeds. And then the bike line appeared from up a ramp... but it was on the other side of a barrier. I had to decide, carry on moving and get across as fast as I can, or stop still in the carriageway and get across. With a small break in the traffic, I decided on the latter, and threw my luggage over the barrier, then jumped across myself before reaching back to lift the bike across to safety.

The wind was harsh on the bridge, and continued to blow all day. But to my very good fortune, for the most part it was blowing me due east. Pedalling to Warsaw was, quite literally, a breeze. At times, I could take myself up shallow inclines in top gear at nearly 30km/hour with little effort, and I quickly put the distance behind me. On the down side, approaching the capital meant that I was facing some of the busiest roads of the whole journey. In sections this was unavoidable, but for the majority of the day I found quieter roads that were acceptable.

A rare bike signpost to Warsaw. I didn't see another.

A rare bike signpost to Warsaw. I didn't see another.

I stopped for lunch at Zelazowa Wola, the birthplace of composer Chopin, where I'd remembered there was a cafe that served acceptable food. Unfortunately, all they served now were microwaved hamburgers and ice-cream. There was nothing in the vicinity ahead, so the alternative was to go back a few kilometres to the last town, Sochachew. So I had microwaved hamburger and ice cream, and sat outside in the howling gale but beaming sun.

I don't feel it!

I don't feel it!

I was down to the last 50 kilometres! I knew from experience that this road was busy and not particularly wide. But a good statistician will tell you that as I hadn't died on the first 27 days of the trip, the chances of me dying today were therefore zero. I am effecively immortal. Still, I had my hi-vis belt on to be sure. However, I did get somewhat sick of the cars passing quite so close (the worst were the ones from the opposite direction, overtaking another car), and I was cycling alongside the Kampinos forest with a marked cycle trail, so I detoured to check it out. The first 500 metres were promising, but guess what? It soon developed into think sand. I ended up pushing my bike most of 3 kilometres before deciding that Suicide Street was preferable, at least unless I intended camping the night.

The last 10-15 km into Warsaw had a brick-paved cycle path/footpath running alongside, and I alternated between keeping out of the way of the traffic, and enjoying the smooter surface of the road. The bricks themselves weren't too much of a problem, but the frequent driveways and entrances meant constantly bouncing up and down, and it was quite wearing. Still, better than sand. And then it approached. In the middle of a huge set of roadworks (which have been there for at least the last 3 years), a sign announced that I had arrived at the city limits. And this, about 5 minutes shy of exactly four weeks since setting off from Greenwich. I pedalled on in, cycle lanes most of the way. Nothing like the ones I'd got used to in Holland or even Germany, but there nonetheless. In the distance I could see iconic landmarks like the Palace of Culture which dominates the Warsaw skyline. I headed in to the old town, and stopped for something proper to eat, and a rest before heading down towards my flat on the other side of the centre. I cycled down past the Presidential Palace, where police try to calm protestors squabbling over an infamous memorial cross that has so dominated Polish news for the last few weeks. Then down Nowy Swiat and through Centrum and Marshalkowska to Plac Konstitucji, where a stage has been erected, banners fly, fireworks are set off, TV crews await and cameras flash from the throngs of adoring fans waiting to catch a glimpse of me. Or not. Round the corner is my flat, and below it is a cafe/bar. Here I meet some friends who have been encouraging me on through the journey; who laughed when I first suggested I might do this, and were as surprised as I was that I had now made it. Two thousand two hundred kilometres on two wheels. I'd done it.

Now, what's next?

------

A few stats and facts

Mechanical issues

  • punctures: 0

  • brake pads replaced: 1

  • minor adjustments to brakes: 5

  • minor adjustments to gears: 2

  • That's it.

Distance travelled:

  • If I'd taken the main roads with no diversions, I cycled far enough to get to Kiev, Ukraine
  • If all the uphills I did were joined together at the start of the journey, I'd get above most commercial aircraft at 30,000 feet. Think of the downhill after that!

Lodging:

  • Nights paid for: 14

  • Free accommodation: 14

Safety:

  • Injuries: 0

  • Times fell off bike: 1

  • Close shaves with traffic: 6

  • Close shaves outside Poland: 0

At the city limit

At the city limit


Arrived in Warsaw Old Town

Arrived in Warsaw Old Town

Posted by bhambidge 10:08 Archived in Poland Tagged bicycle Comments (5)

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