“They will be fine!”
The man’s claim was the embodiment of my worst fears. Vans and caravans have specialist tyres. My primary worry about getting them changed abroad was that we would end up with the wrong ones – and this chap’s offering could not be more wrong.
Tyres had concerned us since Provence. It’s good practice to change caravan tyres every five years anyway, although in her last half decade schlepping around Europe, Caravan Kismet had burned more rubber than most. We had also noticed some unnerving hairline cracks developing in the walls of our van, Big Blue’s summer tyres.
From our base in Bolków, Mark found a tyre shop in nearby Jawor. Despite Jawor having a castle, a 17th Century UNESCO-listed Church of Peace and being on our list of places to see, Mark described it as,
“Somewhere you want to keep your windows up!”
As for the tyre place, he said,
“It looked legitimate – it had large Goodyear sign and a lorry on the forecourt. They didn’t have the right sized tyres for Big Blue, so they offered me some others. I told them they were no good, but they insisted that they would be okay. They only gave up trying to sell them when they wouldn’t fit under the wheel arch!”
When Mark asked if they could order in tyres of the right size, because we would be around for a week, they were dismayed.
“In a week!” they said, shaking their heads. “Not a chance!”
This interaction was an illustration of the difference between rural Poland and the United Kingdom. We are so used to having anything we want almost immediately. Even as private individuals, rather than a vulcanised rubber-focussed business, I would rate our chances of getting practically any tyre within a day.
Tyre-less, we walked to Świny, the most local of our two castles. Now a ruin, Zamek Świny started life on its hilltop as a fortified wooden settlement. Known as early as the 5th century, its role was to protect the Czech side of Lower Silesia, but it fell into disuse with the founding of neighbouring Bolków castle in the 13th century. Many castles can claim destruction by fire and sword, but this was my first meeting with one ravaged by hurricanes!
Our route passed a bug-infested lake, before rising via a stony footpath through a scrubby forest, strewn with shards of broken glass and suffused with the smell of burning plastic. Sultry teenagers occupied a viewpoint on a crag. Drum and bass music thrashed out of their boom box. Tentatively, we approached to admire the view over Bolków, then continued on to the castle. In deep, mossy and mosquito-ridden shade outside the gate, a chap in a check shirt with a large beer gut and round, bottle-thick spectacles waited on a wooden chair to collect admission. We had brought no money, but the ruin looked less than inviting. If we went inside, we feared its walls might collapse on us.
The following morning, we drove into Bolków. The town itself was not the prettiest, but I really enjoyed the castle, which is one of the most important medieval monuments in Lower Silesia. Like Świny, it is a ruin rather than a palace, but unlike its neighbour, it brimmed with atmosphere. I got a genuine sense of the past as I wandered around the various rooms and outside spaces, enclosed by the forbidding, fortified walls. My favourite part of the visit was my own unique adventure when I climbed the tower.
I ascended part way up the exterior on some wooden steps to enter a gloomy stone chamber. Inside was a hole in the floor, which may have been a dungeon or prison. I had seen people on top of the tower, but couldn’t see how to climb any further. Mark had stayed in the courtyard with the dogs and there was no-one else there. It took me a few minutes of groping around the walls to discover a narrow aperture in a shadowy corner, barely big enough to squeeze through.
The opening led into a claustrophobic passage with a spiral staircase. There was no lighting, so in a complete blackout, I fumbled my way up the uneven rock slabs that formed the steps. My hair brushed the rough stonework of the roof, and the musty smell of ancient mortar filled my nostrils. Near the top, two pale, shiny disembodied faces with dark slashes for mouths suddenly floated into view then came at me out of the darkness. It was a pair of heavily made-up lady tourists, but they gave me a start!
The views from the top over agricultural land and the town were both commanding and vertigo-inducing. Unfortunately, the lights were back on for my descent through the tunnel. If you ever want to shatter ambience and ruin the mystery, a line of fluorescent tubes works a treat!
Sadly, Zamek Bolków’s July Festival of Darkness was another casualty of coronavirus. Having experienced the castle’s aura, I liked the idea of a goth party in such a moody setting.
That afternoon, we drove to Złotoryja.
“We won’t go through Jawor, it’s a dump,” Mark said.
Fewer than five miles short of Złotoryja, the road was closed. The diversion sent us all the way back via Jawor and Bolków!
“It’s nice to see a bit of Poland!” I chuckled as we retraced our steps around three sides of a 60km square.
The countryside reminded me of Merrie England, with half-timbered barns dotted in a rolling agricultural landscape. It was not unlike Hampshire, but with hills in the background, storks nesting on chimneys and a red squirrel, who ran across the road to shoot up a tree.
En route, we stopped on the roadside when we spotted a footpath to a rock outcrop called Czartowski Skały. It looked like a great place to let the pups have a good run off lead. From an information board in Polish, I surmised that Czartowski Skały was composed of a different rock from the surrounding area, but beyond that I couldn’t tell you. Even with my growing understanding of Russian and command of several Latin languages, I can’t even take a punt at Polish, other than obvious words like restauracja, which means banana. I’m kidding, it means restaurant.
Later, after looking at the website, I can tell you that the skały are basalt; solidified lava from the inside of a volcanic cone which no longer exists.
Mark couldn’t remember where he got the recommendation for Złotoryja. The square in the centre was buzzing, filled with families enjoying their Sunday afternoon at pavement cafés.
We joined in the fun, which means our abiding memory of Złotoryja is of a sun kissed festival of pizza and beer at a pavement café. I took a photo of the fountain opposite our restauracja because it was so hideous. Composed from a stack of grotesque fish with Mick Jagger lips, it looked like it was made from prefabricated concrete.
After our visit, curiosity got the better of me. Why was Złotoryja on our list? I found that it’s the oldest town in Poland and has a long history of gold mining. While we made the most of its pizza and beer, we missed out on two hundred historic monuments, the opportunity to pan for gold and its very own extinct volcano in a nearby quarry. The fountain was revealed as a famous 17th century tourist attraction.
Złotoryja was fun, but we didn’t feel it lived up to its billing in ‘the top ten most beautiful villages in Poland’.
Back at the campsite, Mark and I discussed our plans. Toothache had kept me awake most of the night, along with a gnawing sense of dread. The long series of small niggles and disasters was getting to me, but the icing on the cake was last night’s dream in which Mark and the dogs all died!
“I feel like we’re blighted!” I said to Mark. “So many things have gone wrong. That lorry nearly killed us all on day one, we’ve had problems with the caravan brakes, our tyres are dangerous and we can’t get them changed…”
But bad luck is in the eye of the beholder. Mark replied,
“But everything worked out really well in the end. We got out of the situation with the lorry in a few minutes – we could have been stuck there for hours. Really, it couldn’t have worked out better! There’s nothing seriously wrong with the caravan brakes, and now we know how to fix them. And I promise you we will get tyres tomorrow in Wrocław.
“We have options” he continued. “We could go home or go windsurfing in Brittany, but that will be tourist hell in August, and I doubt the U.K. will be much better. A few things have gone wrong and we’ve had to change our plans, but most of our trip has been really wonderful – we’ve just had a few bad experiences recently.”
We were both feeling a little disappointed with Poland so far, but rationalised that if we judged it by Slough, immortalised in Poet Laureate John Betjamin’s poem, we might feel the same about Britain.
By the end of the day, my tooth was hurting less. Without painkillers, the ache was the same as it had been with them. My heart filled with a new optimism that I might not need to source Amoxycillin or organise a root canal in Polish.
“It would be a shame to miss Wrocław,” I said. “It’s the capital of Silesia. And we do need tyres…”
We agreed to persevere with Poland.
Wikimedia Commons, unmodified.
- Świny castle entrance, Jerzy Strzelecki, Own Work, Licence: CC BY 3.0
- Aerial view of Slough Trading Estate, by Sloughmani, Own Work, Licence: CC BY 3.0
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