“There’s nothing to see here!” I told Mark as I scanned the tourist brochure.
“Only castles, more than four hundred caves, seventeen of Poland’s twenty-one species of bat and The Hercules Club.”
Silently, I wondered about the facilities and membership requirements of The Hercules Club.
“Other exciting attractions include ‘Buildings in Ojców’ and Energylandia, Poland’s biggest theme park.”
We had set up home on the doorstep of Poland’s smallest national park, Ojców, pronounced ‘Oyt-zov’. Just 10 miles (16 kilometres) from Kraków, Ojców is a bijou 8.3 square mile (21.5 sq km) garden of Eden, filled with verdant meadows and jagged Jurassic limestone formations. Its spectacular canyons and sculpted white rocks are the eroded remains of a 140-million-year-old ocean. Many have fanciful names, ‘The Fossilised Wanderer’, ‘The Prelates’ and ‘The Kraków Gate’. Quiet relief flooded through me when I spotted ‘The Beach Clubs’. They alerted me to the possibility that Maczuga Herkulesa – The Hercules Club – might be more slab than social.
Unwittingly, I had slipped beneath Mark’s sarcasm radar. Relieved that I’d kept my thoughts to myself, I imagined Mark’s likely diatribe about a Gentleman’s Club filled with the testosterone-fuelled male offspring of Zeus, bragging on about their twelve labours,
“I slayed the Hydra and a bulletproof lion of Nemea!”
“Call yourself a man? I pilfered Diomedes’ man-eating Mares and the Amazon Queen’s girdle-of-virtue!”
“Last one to scrump the Nymphs of the West’s apples buys the beers!”
But before we could go out to explore this lush and leafy gem, we had some typical traveller’s tasks to complete. This included purchasing solar panels and leisure batteries for The Beast, our new expedition truck, arranging a pandemic-backlog-beating MOT for our van, Big Blue, three months hence, and putting our house on the market.
Mark also booked his trip to Auschwitz; ‘a three-hour guided trip in your chosen language’. I had mixed feelings that, being so close, perhaps I should go. However, I rationalised that since I have yet to recover from watching Schindler’s List at the cinema in 1994, I would spare myself the trauma and dog sit.
Our Ojców explorations started 400m from the campsite at Pieskowa Skała Castle, a spectacular hilltop castle which dates back to the 14th century. Its white and ivy-clad walls, red roof and onion-domed clock are the result of an elegant Renaissance restoration in the 1580s.
We bought a walking map in the lone wooden shop near the car park and climbed through darkly wooded shade to the castle. Although Pieskowa Skała means ‘little dog’s rock’, our little dogs didn’t rock enough to be allowed inside, so we briefly enjoyed its classy exterior then continued on our way.
Our circular walk would have gone more smoothly had I not spotted a board detailing Nordic Walking Trails, one of which was marked in green and led to The Hercules Club, which I had now confirmed was a giant limestone pillar.
Unfortunately, the shop window forced unwelcome thoughts of The Hercules Club and its male membership straight back into my mind. Plastic replicas of this famous landmark looked like something you might buy from Ann Summers. A souvenir that would be an asset to any sideboard!
The woodland walk was beautiful, but it wasn’t Kokořín (joking!) Navigation went really well until the point where we were due to join the green Nordic trail. Three quarters of the way round, we ran out of coloured trail markers and found ourselves off piste among fields and a tiny hamlet of pretty, country homes.
An elderly man with dinner all around his face shot out of his cottage to fuss the dogs. His stabbing finger and a spray of comestibles confirmed our location on the map, but we couldn’t work out whether his effusive guidance in Polish was a corroboration or contradiction of our onward directional hunch.
We were reasonably certain we were on the right track. It seemed odd that there were no trail markers to match the distinct green line on the map that we were following, but the worst case scenario was a network of unmarked footpaths that would lead us back to Pieskowa Skała. As we waded through desiccated fields of golden crops, which crackled and swayed in the sunshine, Mark gave a classic appraisal of our situation,
“We don’t know where we are, but we’re not lost!”
Although it was sunny, we were not too worried about the pups. Even in the open, it was cooler than the mid-thirty-degree temperatures of recent days, although most of the walk had been in delicious woodland shade. A few tinklingly clear chalk streams crossed our path, which provided The Fab Four with opportunities for a refreshing splash and drink.
It got interesting once we re-entered the woods. Almost immediately, the footpath we were following petered out completely. We could see the edge of the woodland and decided that if we kept close to that, we’d not go far wrong. It was rough underfoot and at one point, we took a compass bearing just to be sure.
Eventually, we intersected with the yellow-marked path that we wanted and after a short descent, popped out of the forest next to Maczuga Herkulesa. The self-congratulation at our navigational prowess was as vast and tumescent as The Hercules Club itself, or any mightily masculine members thereof.
Back at the shop where we bought our map, we sat under a brolly and treated ourselves to an ice-cream and a debrief. Only then did we realise that the green line we had followed so faithfully on the map was not a Nordic walking trail. It was the boundary line of the National Park.
We made a pact and, like my secret thoughts on The Hercules Club, vowed never to speak of it…
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