“It’s not a matter of if, but when this driver will have an accident. I can pinpoint exactly the timing of this accident. It will happen just after his luck runs out.”
This was one of Mark’s early driving assessments as a young and feckless courier. I plagiarised it now to deliver judgement on the truck driver, once I dared to uncover my eyes. Rounding a blind bend, we had come nose-to-nose with an articulated lorry, who had seized the day – and zero visibility – to pass a tractor.
For two hours and seventy-six miles, the scenery did not change. We had still not escaped the endless seas of barley, but driving in Poland is never dull. When we reached our destination, we had expended a further two of our nine lives on impatient Polish truckers overtaking inappropriately.
Thankfully, nobody’s luck ran out.
The outskirts of Lublin had promise. Through gaps in the surrounding woodland, we glimpsed Zemborzyckie Reservoir, a huge shimmering lake. Mark had found a tiny campsite with only three pitches, set among the trees near the water’s edge. Visions of walks and watery fun flashed before us. Excited, we immediately agreed,
“We’ll stay at least a week!”
Matthew and Anya welcomed us warmly. They made a tremendous fuss of our fur family and to our immense relief, didn’t help to pitch our hound cart, Caravan Kismet. This showed great restraint, since getting into position in the tiny camping area was a fandangle of irresistible proportions to your average self-appointed CPC (Caravan Pushing Committee).
The manoeuvre required us to drive in; unhitch; hand-pivot Kismet through 180 degrees; re-hitch; then reverse up on to two tramlines of hard standing. It differed markedly from our experience at Łańcut. With no-one to help, no blood was shed; nothing was broken; and in fewer than ten minutes, we were relaxing in the shade with a cuppa.
Sadly, a walk around the lake quickly tarnished its sheen. The nature of the litter and leavings led Mark to deduce,
“It’s clearly a popular BB&B spot for city dwellers.”
“Beer, Barbeque and Bonking.”
We passed three rough sleepers, including a real-life Stig of the Dump, who lived in a shack made from twigs and plastic sheets. The conspicuous lack of bins or ‘facilities’ had dire consequences. I saw items a lady should never expect to confront after the menopause, and there was minimal jeopardy on offer for a game of ‘Poodunnit?‘ With no bears around, we knew only too well who had done what in the woods.
‘No Swimming’ signs indicated the lake was off limits due to blooms of toxic cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). Keeping four pond-plunging pooches out of the water and away from the detritus in the trees did not make it a relaxing walk.
(I understand that Polish Waters started a project to clean up the lake in 2019, although I can’t vouch for the woodland. The restoration is expected to take up to four years.)
Antici-pointment is disillusionment in its bitterest form, and ours came with an added dilemma; we had too much time on our hands! Neither Mark nor I wanted to go near the revolting, polluted lake again. Although Lublin is dubbed ‘The Gateway to the East’, we were wary of crossing into nearby Belarus and Ukraine, since a sudden change to Covid rules could bar us from re-entering the EU.
In addition, there was the small matter of an evolving conflict in Belarus, following the allegedly fraudulent election of its Kremlin-aligned dictator. On the positive side, we could visit Lublin, and use the opportunity to see a few of the places we’d missed; Kazimierz Dolny and Zamość were only an hour away. It was still only the beginning of August, so in high season, we were confident our ultimate destination Hel, on Poland’s north coast, would live right up to its name.
“We do need to do some jobs like laundry and shopping, and the campsite is a lovely quiet place to relax for a while,” I said.
Sometimes, our conversations sound like something you might expect to hear in a care home for the deaf and criminally insane. Mark muttered something unintelligible about a supermarket nearby.
“You saw a Cow Flan?” I queried.
A trip to Kaufland will never be the same again.
Lublin is Eastern Poland’s largest city and has twice been its capital, yet it is often overlooked as a destination. In 2007, it lost out to Wrocław in its bid to become European Capital of Culture. Nevertheless, it has a vibrant arts scene and is known as ‘The City of Festivals’.
To explore without the high-summer heat and crowds, we went in early. Next to the castle, Plac Zamkowy offered free parking. From there, it was an easy walk up into Plac Po Farze, which offered a panoramic view of the castle from the stone ruins which traced the outline of the old Parish Church, which was demolished in the 19th Century. The tall, ornately painted houses around the square were an immediate wow.
First things first, though. Our primary mission in any new city always involves a sugar hit, caffeine and some time spent soaking up the ambience. The waitresses in the Trybunalska City Pub in the rynek (market square) were lovely. Without asking, they brought a bowl of water for the dogs and tended to our needs with effortless efficiency.
Heartbreak followed swiftly on the heels of this efficiency, though. A glance down the menu, beyond the sweet treats, revealed an English Breakfast, available until 11.30 a.m. We were horrified! Few epicurian delights trump coffee and cake, but after an eighteen-month egg, bacon and sausage drought, with the promise of beans, tomato and mushrooms (you can keep your hash browns) a Full English is the Holy Grail. Whether or not it comes with proper brown sauce.
“Maybe we can join them again for breakfast tomorrow morning!” I said to Mark, blissfully unaware of the sharks that lurked within the murky waters of our plans the next twenty-four hours.
Ambience came in the form of a large chap opposite, with the tiniest white teacup dog. The café seating area was on a slightly raised wooden platform. His little fluff ball crept underneath, then refused to come out. Like a conjuror, the waitress produced a slice of ham as an incentive, but to no avail. The man interrupted his breakfast bap several times to try and coax her out, but she was having none of it. We dispatched Rosie and Lani as a welcoming committee. They elicited some barking from beneath the dais, but still no pup. Negotiations between Dog and Dogfather were ongoing when we paid our bill, but we saw him later and are glad to report them re-united!
For Geometric pedants, which of course we are, Lublin’s market square is actually an irregular trapezoid, with six narrow cobbled streets leading from it. The highly ornamented Renaissance town houses that surround it were built to replace wooden buildings destroyed in the fire of 1575. More than seventy percent of the buildings in the old town are original, and there is an ongoing program of restoration. Some say the Blue House is the most beautiful. I rather liked the highly decorated orangey-rust facade of Trybunalska, the setting for our failed Full English. The most haunting was definitely one which bore poster-sized black-and-white photographs of its former residents who died in WWII.
The centre of the trapezoid is dominated by the monumental Crown Tribunal/Old Town Hall building, which is now the Registry Office. Lublin’s underground route starts in its vaults and takes you though the old wine cellars and prison. In 1637, the building hosted The Devil’s Trial, one of Lublin’s best known legends. The plot is much like Clint Eastwood’s film, Pale Rider without six shooters, Stetsons and spurs.
A poor widow was robbed and burned out of her house by a wealthy nobleman, Kurdwanowski, who had designs on her land. She took her case to the Crown Tribunal, but in keeping with local tradition, the not-so-nobleman had bribed the judge and jury. When the court pronounced against her, the widow declared,
“If the Devil convicted me, it would have been a fairer trial.”
That night, weeping tears of blood because human malice could out-evil even master badass Satan, The Almighty dispatched an unlikely God Squad to make amends. The posse, comprising Old Nick and a few horned demons, all sporting red robes in lieu of a distressed double-breasted overcoat and cowboy boots, set out to conduct a re-trial. If you have ever pondered the question, “The Devil, is he all bad?” Satan did offer the widow a fairer hearing than the judiciary and ordered Kurdwanowski to return her lands with compensation. God does indeed move in mysterious ways.
To underline his proclamation, Judge Satan slammed his palm on to table and scorched his hand print into the wood. The following day the crooked adjudicators all broke their legs on the building’s steps and their corrupt behaviour led to the dissolution of the Tribunal. The charred imprint of The Devil’s Paw is on display in the Castle museum.
We left the old town through the Kraków gate, a gothic-style brick tower, crowned with a shapely belfry and clock. Brama Krakówska is one of the few remains of the original medieval city walls and is a symbol of Lublin. A surprising musical medley serenaded us as we transitioned from old town to new. The eclectic repertoire included Ray Charles’ ‘Hit the Road, Jack‘ and Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’, but until you have heard Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ rendered on an accordion, Mamma Mia! You have never lived!
One of my favourite Gary Larson cartoons sums up everything you need to know about The Stomach Steinway. It depicts St Peter at the gates of Heaven, separating saints from sinners. Those who enter the Pearly Gates are given a harp. Those heading to Hades each get an accordion.
Imagine an eternity with that. Even without being out-evilled by humanity, it’s enough to make Beelzebub quit dastarly deedmaking and become a principled judge in the Crown Tribunal. I can’t help thinking that Freddie Mercury really meant to go into Bo Rap’s guitar solo with the line,
“Beelzebub has a-ccordions put aside for meee, for meee, for MEEEEEE!”
The broad modern esplanade beyond led to Litewski Square and the multi-media fountain. At night, the acres of water jets shooting out of the pavement are colourfully lit. On summer weekends, sound and light shows are projected on to the liquid screen. During the day, it was more beige, the colour of the stone beneath, but provided a perfect solution to cooling off our hot dogs. Next to it, we found an oversized sign thoughtfully placed to remind amnesiacs which city they are in. It was the perfect spot for The Fab Four to get their obligatory ‘We Woz ‘ere’ postcard pic.
We walked back to our van, Big Blue, through the Grodzka Gate; the portal between the Christian centre and Jewish quarter of the city. I can’t talk about Lublin without mentioning that it was renowned for religious tolerance and for more than five hundred years, was home to one of the foremost Jewish communities in Europe. The Lublin Jews flourished after King Kazimierz Jagiellonczyk granted them free trade in 1453. A third of Lublin’s population was Jewish, and the city was world famous for its highly acclaimed Chachmei Yeshiva Lublin rabbinical academy.
Inevitably, this eminence led to horror under Nazi occupation. The dual carriageway that brought us into Lublin cuts across the former Jewish neighbourhood and the site of the Grand Synagogue; an architectural masterpiece built in 1567 to accommodate 3,000 worshippers. The Nazis re-purposed it to sort prisoners to send to death camps, then burned it to the ground. They also incinerated the contents of the Academy’s library in the square. Eye witnesses say the books burned for twenty-four hours, and the Germans summoned a military band to drown out the distraught cries of the people watching the desecration of their history and culture.
With all the notoriety attached to places like Auschwitz, I was unaware that Lublin was really the epicentre of the Holocaust in Poland. It was the organisational headquarters of Operation Reinhard, Hitler’s heinous program of genocide, which aimed to murder the entire Jewish population of occupied Poland. Most of the clothes and valuables looted from the two million victims of the nearby death camps at Majdanek, Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibór were sent to Lublin for consolidation and redistribution to Germany.
The Nazis tended to hide away their concentration camps to conceal their true purpose, but Majdanek is unusual, because although it is the second larges extermination camp, it stands blatantly on Lublin’s outskirts. It is also one of the best preserved. So close to the border, Majdanek was liberated months before Auschwitz in a rapid advance by the Soviet Red Army. As such, it was captured intact, before its commander could destroy the evidence.
Estimates suggest that of Lublin’s 43,000 Jews, 230 survived the Holocaust.
Little wonder, then, that in Lublin, the nefarious nature of humanity caused God to cry tears of blood and the Devil to repent.
Near the Grodzka Gate, we passed beneath the sculpture of Jasza Mazur, ‘The Magician of Lublin‘ walking a tightrope. Like the character who sought to escape his past in Nobel prizewinner Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel of the same name, our time had run out.
They say every cloud has a silver lining, although those which form upon our horizons tend to be mushroom-shaped and lined with plutonium. We had deftly sidestepped the coronavirus outbreaks in Poland, but world events had finally caught up with us. As I read the evening news, I shared the bombshell with Mark,
“Apparently, France is ‘bubbling with coronavirus cases and may be the next to come off the UK’s safe travel list.’”
France was our route home. It was not just a question of health, we had a deadline. Big Blue’s MOT ran out in six weeks. Although there had been an MOT ‘holiday’ during the Britain’s first coronavirus lockdown, it seemed unlikely that DVLA would grant a grace period now if we got stuck abroad. No MOT meant invalid insurance, which equals illegal to drive. Also, with our house rented out and government rules meaning no chance of getting it back, we had no fixed abode to quarantine if we did make it to the UK. Despite being effectively isolated in our caravan, campsites do not welcome guests from coronavirus hotspots, and like the cherry on the cake, exercising four dogs while isolating was the fissile neutron atop our cloud, primed and ready to detonate that radioactive lining.
The Hel peninsula and Gdansk on the north coast of Poland in September, when the crowds subsided, looked further away than ever. Our carefully laid plans to go to Hel in a hound cart had done exactly that.
“Let’s leave Poland tomorrow,” Mark said. “We might make it through France before the border closes down.”
His quick route out of Poland would allow us to take in the former Luftwaffe prison Stalag Luft III. The POW camp for Allied airman in Żagań is where the famous breakout fictionalised in the film The Great Escape took place, which seemed ironic in the circumstances. The enthralling sense of being immersed in history when you visit iconic sites is magical, but prudence dictated that we should high tail it and make our own Great Escape as quickly as possible.
We were sorry to leave our lovely hosts but paid up and made and early start. They gave us bags of treats for the dogs and an English Lions flag. Even more shocking was our bill; just 60 Zł – about £12 – for two nights!
The intention was to break our journey about half way across the country near the palace at Nieborow, but that fissile neutron was teetering menacingly. As we pulled in, the campsite looked perfect; in woodland with a convivial café next to a petite military museum. Enquiries revealed the campsite was closed, along with every other campsite in the area.
On the up side, a small non-nuclear silver lining shot out of this strato-cumulus, packing an Armstrong Siddely Viper jet engine. Along with horses, the aforementioned Mr Mercury and Professor Brian Cox, aviation is one of my great loves, so I was thrilled to get a photograph of Caravan Kismet next to a PZL TS-11 Iskra – a Polish fighter trainer parked at the museum entrance.
If, like me, you also love a curious fact, Iskra is the gift that keeps giving. Iskra means ‘Spark’, which is also the name of the Bolshevik underground newspaper produced by Lenin and Trotsky, among others, before they opened Pravda. The newspaper’s motto was ‘From a spark a fire will flare up’, an epithet that can be applied in many situations, including a pandemic.
In the end, we traversed almost the entire country from the Ukrainian border to Germany. Other than a distant view of Warsaw, there was literally nothing to see, so it was unsurprising that we did not encounter a single campsite between Nieborow and Poznań.
Poznań is one of the oldest cities in Poland, but after our epic drive, we had neither the time nor energy for sightseeing. All we wanted to do was eat, drink and sleep. On that basis, I could live with the brick wall and industrial pipes that formed our view, but a banging rock festival in the park next door put paid to any thoughts of relaxation. The lake that looked so nice on the website was not unlike Zemborzyckie. There was unpleasant litter everywhere, including the trademark sanitary items. The overpowering stench of a well-matured garbage truck hung in the air as we walked the dogs.
Tempting as it was to return to Posnania, the wonderfully named shopping centre we’d passed on the way in, for ease, we decided to dine on site.
Vacillating between reception and the restaurant, we were told; yes, the restaurant is open; no, we’re shut; yes, they’re open; okay, we’re open but not doing food; yes, they are doing food; okay, you can have anything you want, so long as it’s chicken and potato.
Over a beer and hard-won platter of reheated chicken and equally leathery potatoes, we reflected on our experience of Poland. Mark said,
“I wouldn’t really recommend Central Poland for a road trip. There are some nice bits, but they are small, sometimes disappointing and miles apart. The scenery is all just the same – there are no pretty villages or castles on hills. It’s just miles of flat arable land. I would have spent much more time in Kraków and the surrounding area, taking in Ojców and the salt mines. We have missed some fab places in the north and south, but the coast near Gdansk will be packed this time of year and I always intended to tie in the Tatra national park in the south with our visit to Slovakia.”
We’d both had enough of the rudeness and aggressive driving, but In Poland’s defence, I added,
“Touring in a pandemic and the constant re-routing has added a lot of stress. We usually avoid the news, but we’ve had no choice but keep our eye on it, which is always depressing. It is high season – touristy places anywhere are awful in high season. We have missed quite a few of our planned destinations, which looked really nice, and usually, we meet and chat to loads of people. There is much more of a language barrier here – there are very few English speakers – but I think because of Covid, people are keeping themselves to themselves much more.”
As usual, Mark summed it up perfectly.
“It’s been a slightly awkward first meeting, but Poland would still make it to a second date!”
We raised our glasses and finished our beer. Tomorrow, we would be in Berlin.
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The conflict in Belarus escalated in a shocking direction as I wrote this blog. This week, a scheduled Ryanair flight between two EU states, Greece and Lithuania, was effectively hijacked and escorted to Minsk by a MIG fighter jet on the premise of a bomb aboard. Dissident Belarusian journalist and critic of Lukashenko’s regime, Roman Protasevich, who had been living in exile for his own safety, was detained in Minsk in fear for his life. The international community has condemned this unprecedented event as an act of state sponsored terrorism. I am aghast that a passenger who sought asylum in the EU can be siezed in this way from a commercial flight and it begs the question, is anyone really safe?