Kraków - Berlin

20 July  - 27 July

380 Miles. 

21 July - Krakow Layover.  I had two nights in Krakow, mostly to rest and to do some very practical things, like a bit of laundry, bit of bike maintenance and just generally get myself together.  This bike touring stuff mostly consists of getting up, breakfast, packing up, cycling, a bit of lunch, a few water stops, and lots of pedalling until sometime in the late afternoon / early evening I arrive at my destination to shower, eat, have a beer, and then go to bed.  So a day when you can do just what you want is bliss.  I said already that I spent time in the covered market in Krakow just browsing the myriad of stalls selling all sorts of lovely things.  I kept thinking, if only there was somewhere like this that I could wonder down to during the day and buy the things I want for the evening’s dinner. Compare that to the covered market in Birmingham which just sells trash and fish that looks as though it hasn’t seen the sea in months and meat which is from bits of the animal that even I, gastronomic wannabe explorer, would not eat.     I’d love a Krakow covered market in the Bull Ring !

I didn’t do much tourist stuff - one castle is often like another castle, and one church / cathedral much like another.  I just like to wander and watch and notice life.  I enjoyed my time in Krakow and may come back one day for a touristy city break and do all the things that people usually do in Krakow.  Food on the two nights was, night one very Polish, and night two Vietnamese cheap and cheerful.  I’ve notice that if there are orientals in Poland, they are usually Vietnamese.  Oriental restaurants here are Vietnamese, not so much Chinese.  Why ?  Do / did the Poles have a thing about Vietnam.  Dunno !

In my hotel I got talking to a Yank.  I could tell he had been in the military - crew cut, lean etc - but he was interesting.  He was there working with some aid charity ferrying supples to Ukraine.  There were some Dutch people with him as well, but I couldn’t work out the connection.  He was from San Diego, where I had been in May, so I was able to sound all knowledgeable about SD and SoCal !  I guess there are all sorts of people going back and forth to Ukraine on behalf of aid / assistance etc.  Poland is full of Ukrainian flags.  No Syrian flags though.  As I said before, it depends on where you are from and how you look and sound that often determines your welcome or lack of it.  Anyhow, fair dues to the Yank from SD for getting involved in his retirement.  And there is me just riding my bike !

Back to the immigration / refugee stuff, which is a live issue here in Poland, and which is very much in the news in the UK.  I see that the Tory Party leadership candidates, Little Rishi and Weirdly Wooden Truss, are both talking tough about immigration,  We have to realise, of course, that they are depending on only about 160,000 Conservative Party signed up members to elect them, most of whom will be over 60 and of the hang them and flog them brigade, who want to hear all this tough talk about stopping immigration and refugees.  As well as cutting taxes.  Which makes me worry that Truss will prevail, and we will be landed with an autistic, emotionally impaired, odd, Cruella de Vil Prime Minister like Truss.  Remember, as PM she will be able to appoint a government of like minded deficients that will rule our lives for several years.   Rishi, married to a billionaire’s daughter, will just not cut it talking about tough times and not cutting taxes, while he wears totally expensive loafers on a building site.  The optics are everything, sadly. The guy simply can’t manage to look or sound relevant to even the mildly struggling.  Not that really matters, because the Tory Party elector voters are not of the struggling kind, by and large. Anyhow, as I say, 160,000 right wing odd ball cricket club, golf club, bridge club, kennel club and so on members of the Tory Party will decide the leadership of our next government.  Madness !

22 July 2022.  Krakow - Gliwice.  70 Miles. Leaving Krakow I began heading west, tracking up to meet the River Oder, today passing through Gliwice, where I stayed for the night.  I’m beginning to move in to territory that was German up until 1945 and then became Polish after the redefinition of borders at the post war settlement.  The churches give it away.  They are very German looking, many of them with the kind of architecture you see in Bavaria or Austria, particularly the domed steeples.  All along you could believe you were in Germany, which of course it was for centuries before 1945.  I note that there are very few German things about, other than the churches.  All the memorials and monuments are very Polish, mostly commemorating stuff from WW2 and the awful atrocities that the Germans inflicted on them.  There’s a sense here of the ground having been largely cleared of most things from the German past.  The German inhabitants were forcibly moved out and west, and the Polish moved in.  Most of the Polish people here will not have a local history and residence much more than 75 years or so.  They are newcomers / incomers.  Strangely, every now and again a town sign would be in the new Polish name and the old German name.  Some even had a Czech / Slovak name, indicating the complicated mix and history of this part of the world and its Auto-Hungarian and German history. Maybe the recognition of the original German name of the place is a growing sensitivity on the part of the Poles that there is a complicated history to these places, and a recognition of the past and the people who were here before they were here.  

The euphemism used by the Poles over decades to justify these new borders was that they were ‘recovered territories’ harking back to some Polish presence and culture during the medieval period.  A pretty flimsy facade to disguise the forced removal of millions of Germans from these lands.  Further justifications were that these lands were recompense for the brutal things the Germans had done to them during WW2 and also to the lose of Polish territory to the Russians taken in 1939 with the connivance of the Germans following the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, and formalised in 1945.  Whatever the justifications, I don’t think we should forget that these movements of borders meant that millions of people had to move physically under duress and force from places where they had been for centuries. 

It was only finally, when the two Germanys, east and west, were reunited in the late 90’s that the Germans eventually and finally accepted the post war status quo of the borders between Germany and Poland.  I think there was a lot of horse trading went on in order to achieve the reunification which required the Germans to accept the reality of what happened in 1945.  Up until then, various West and East German governments had been ambivalent about the border.  But, if they wanted reunification of Germany, then they had to accept that these eastern lands were now Polish.  That’s where we are now.

The hotel in Gliwice was interesting.  Very nice for the price, nice restaurant, and the night I was there was a family celebration of a new birth, and they sang, and they cheered, and they ate and drank, and were all very jolly.  I don’t think it was a christening party, more just a family celebration of a new member.  It was nice to see and hear, happy people enjoying a good time together.  I almost got in to trouble the morning I was leaving, when just about to pedal off a woman came up to me rather accusingly and told me I had not payed.  I usually book my hotels through Booking.com and usually payment is handled by the.  But, occasionally not !  And so it looked as though I was sloping off without paying.  A few smiles and shrugs of shoulders from me seemed to have sorted the situation and all was good.  I think I’m getting good at using charm and crisis calming techniques.

23 July 2022.  Gliwice - Brzeg.  70 Miles.  Brzeg sounds as though it should be Germanically precise.  It probably was German once, inevitably being in this part of Poland, but the communists did a good job at making it a concrete jungle of identical apartment buildings.   Villa Romeo, where I stayed, was neither a villa nor had any vestiges of a Romeo there.  Decent enough, but stuck right next door to a run down shopping centre with boy racers hanging about in the car park.  Food was pretty lean pickings tonight and I ended up doing Vietnamese.  Which was only okay.  So, in the sum of things, the lodgings and food today were at the lower end of what I have experienced so far.  In to the bargain it was stormy and rainy and cool today, and some of the storms were accompanied by very high winds, tornado like.  Luckily, on the couple of occasions that I ran in to one of these I was able to find decent cover for the ten or fifteen minutes it took for the storm to quickly pass over.

24 July 2022.  Brzeg - Lubin. 70 Miles.  It being Sunday today, I stopped off and spent a bit of time listening to Mass being broadcast by loudspeaker, standing with most men of the village who were gathered outside.  Women and families go inside.  Later in the morning I was passing a little church and the priest was outside splashing holy water on cars and blessing them.  He saw me standing watching and came over and blessed me and my bike !  Then gave me a St Christopher holy card.  Well, I’m prepared to back any horse in order to keep me safe on the road, so I was happy with it.  There was an altar boy with him, with a bucket for money.  Glad to see that the old traditions, spiritual and financial, carry on.  I was skirting the Oder River today and am moving west towards where it marks the border between present day Germany and Poland.  I’ll then follow the Oder up north to Frankfurt an Der Oder / Slubice, and then cross over in to Germany and head towards Berlin.

25 July 2022.  Lubin - Dabie.  70 Miles.  My route took me on a fairly busy road today heading northwest, so I spent quite a bit of time trying to find quiet country roads in order to avoid the traffic.  It was mostly flat and through pine forests, cool and pleasant smelling.  You can see how the Nazis were able to secret away labour and concentration camps in these woods.   You wouldn’t know they were there, hidden as they would have been by the forests.  

Along the main road every miles or so in some stretches there were ladies of the night / day offering their services, sitting there by the side of the road.  I noticed that there was often a flashy Mercedes parked up somewhere along the few miles, no doubt the controller of these women and their services.  It’s all quite blatant, and just seems to be part of the business of the main road.  I doubt if they get much trouble from the police. At home the moral minority would be kicking up a fuss. I’d be more worried about the coercion of these women that is undoubtedly going on rather than what people are getting up to in their spare time. Maybe a little less publicly.

Going through the small villages was pleasant, but I noted that many of these villages still retained their old cobbled streets, which isn’t great when you are perched on a leather saddle.  The hotel in Dabie said it had a restaurant, but it wasn’t open, so I resorted to the local Dino mini-supermarket in the town and made up my own picnic.

26 July 2022. Dabie - Slubice / Frankfurt an Der Oder. 45 Miles. Today was mostly following the Oder, with Germany on the other side.  For quite a bit of the day I was atop the flood defences riding along a rather bumpy concrete surface, but with a good view of both sides of the river.  Slubice is a bustling border town with seemingly every second shop selling discount cigarettes and alcohol, evidently cheaper in Zloty Poland than Euro Germany across the bridge.  I stayed in a very nice hotel on the Polish Slubice side so that I could get rid of some remaining Zloty.  My task that evening was to try and work out how I was going to get from here over to the Saarland, so visited the Bahnhof in Frankfurt an Der Oder.  It’s proving difficult, because trains are very busy at the moment because the German railways have introduced a Euro 9 monthly ticket for regional trains, so lots of people seem to be travelling.  Also, trying to get a space for a bicycle is proving difficult.  So, I will cycle tomorrow to Berlin and see what I can organise from there.  

And so I leave Poland.  I’ve enjoyed my time here, with some good cycling through lovely countryside and with good infrastructure and services.  The people have been friendly.  It’s been relatively inexpensive for good accommodation and food.  I’d say it is half the price of the UK and the EuroZone.  So, good value for money.  I’ve been intrigued by the recent history of the areas I’ve been going through, especially the postwar settlement of the borders, and the forced transfer of millions of people from one zone to another.  I noticed when I crossed the bridge from Poland in to Germany that there were posters reminding me that similar things are happening today;  some 14 million Ukrainians have been uprooted from their homes in the last number of months because of what is happening in their country, some to leave their country, others to move west within Ukraine in order to find safety  Many of them, and I’ve seen them at the railway stations, are travelling through Poland and Germany going to places where they can find refuge.

I guess the thing I feel a little uncomfortable with when it comes to Poland has to do with its current ethos built on a conservative and right wing social, political, moral and religious culture, which very much has connections to its strong patriotic Catholicism. and reflected in a right wing authoritarian Law and Justice government.  There appears to be great emphasis on traditional family values, on law, on order, on a monoculture and a single origin population.  You might say, what’s not to like ?  Well, the trouble with that is it excludes and marginalises a whole range of people who don’t fit in to that neat contrived artificial model, and find themselves invariably excluded and often demonised.  All the traditional stuff is fine if that is what you want for you and your life.    But, it also needs to find accepting and respectful room for others, and for legitimate  difference as well.  Which I’m not sure I sense here in Poland.  I think the Polish Catholic Church is very much part of the underpinning of this and is happily complicit in supporting conservative influences in setting an exclusive tone.  I suspect it is very content that it still exerts such influence.   And undoubtedly reaps the benefits.  They will get a shock in decades to come when people here, inevitably, begin to think a bit more laterally and flexibly and loosen their ties with such a monoculture as they move more and more in to mainstream Europe and its liberal and democratic values.  The right wing blips that raise their heads every now and again in places like France (Le Pen) and Germany (AfD) and other places won't win out and neither will the right wing agenda in places like Poland and Hungary.  Take Ireland, which has embraced these values wholeheartedly and has divested itself of an overbearing moral and religious culture,  which dominated their society for so long and has fully embraced liberal and diverse values. 

27 July 2022.  Slubice / Franfurt an Der Oder - Berlin.  65 Miles.  And so on across the river into Germany and Frankfurt an Der Oder which at one time would have been well within German territory but is now a border town.  I immediately noticed that I’d moved not only from Polish speaking to German speaking, but also from monochrome Poland to ethnically diverse German.  The difference is stark.  Suddenly there are people around who speak not only German but Arabic, Turkish, whatever.  Mostly Arabic in this part of Germany where many of the Syrian and Middle Eastern refugees taken in by Mutti and Germany four or five years ago have been settled.

Another immediate difference is the cost of everything.  Double what it was in Poland, now that I am in the EuroZone.  I’m sure Poland will catch up one day and won’t be such good value.

The ride to Berlin wasn’t so long, only 100 kilometres / 60 miles, but was pleasant enough with good cycle routes and paths.  A good half of it was through the outer suburbs of Berlin and then on in to the city itself, which is good to cycle around and through.  Mostly you have to watch out for other cyclists rather than motorists. Everybody seems to cycle.

I came in from the eastern side, so went through the old east Berlin, the giveaway being the masses of communist era blocks of flats, renovated and made a bit less brutal than they would have originally been.  Then on to the Hauptbahnhof, which is quite something, all glass and steel.  I had a hotel nearby, and then spent a couple of hours trying to work out how to get to Mainz, finally finding a train for the next day with a bicycle space that was available, and fortunately the faster train.  Still four and a half hours.  Germany is a big country.  Although not as big as it once was, which I’ve been discovering and learning more about.

So, on Thursday 28th I will train it to Mainz and stay with Lucas, a cycle buddy I met on a previous trip, and catch up with all the news.  Then on Friday 29th I’ll head for the Saarland and Sankt Wendel by train and spend a couple of days enjoying good company, food and culture.  Then it will be the business of getting back home, which plan to do by cycling north along the French-German border and then up through Belgium and France to Dunkirk or Calais to the ferry back to England.  I might tell you about it at some stage !