Remember that one time we met a Polish Soldier on the side of the highway? And he insisted you hold his gun?
Hey Hey Hey! Welcome back friends. You give up or are you thirsty for more?
Sorry for the long delay good people, but we had a lot to pack in and little time to stop and write. And now I have a lot to catch you up on so bear with me. Maybe take breaks :) Last post I left off nestled in bed writing in Lomza while stuffing my pretty little face with pierogis and ice cream. Pierogis are a steamed pastry stuffed with all kinds of good stuff; meat, potatoes, spinach or fruit and can be found all over Poland, Russia, and many other European countries and the origin is greatly disputed (as is with all good foods). Thanks to the ridiculous number of cows all over Poland, there is more ice-cream (lody) shops than coffee shops so we are not going hungry. Although most of our meals between town stops are cold sandwiches made out of grocery stores.
Riding out of Lomza (pronounced Womza), we decided to follow a route recommended by Szymon, a Warmshowers host in Warsaw who allowed us to leave bikes in his place while we flew to Prague. But I'll get to that. We had about two and a half days ride, zig-zagging a bunch of slow back roads to get to Warsaw and found a place in the woods to camp a night and then found a shockingly not booked single bed in a hotel about 28 miles outside Warsaw on the second night. As romantic as spooning with your honey in a single bed sounds, the reality is not quite so Hollywood. We later learned from Szymon, that camping in Poland in the woods is illegal, so hopefully we don't get arrested. Our mug shots are probably posted all over police stations, "Wanted for Illegal Camping: Long Haired Swede and Stinky Tanned American Woman. Last seen with rifle, may be armed and dangerous" (I'll get to that too).
Nowy Dwor Mazowiecki (say that 10x fast), Warsaw, where we crammed into the single bed, had the best designated bike route from there about 28 miles south all the way into Warsaw. It wound through towns, forest, and even in along the giant Vistula River that runs through Warsaw. As soon as we left town, we passed a guy fully dressed in a WWI Polish Military Uniform. Ville stopped to find out the scoop, and as it turns out he happened to speak enough English to tell us he walked over two days from Warsaw fully dressed, heading to the town we had just left to do a War Reenactment. When Ville asked if he could take a picture with him, he insisted Ville hold his gun. The rest of the ride into town was really pleasant being separated from traffic. And as we rode into Warsaw along the promenade boarding the Vistula River, it was the first time since entering Poland that we saw Polish people out on bikes, scooters, roller blades, etc. and it was really cool! And Warsaw had excellent bicycle routes that ran all over the City as well.
Ville had booked us a room online (he found some deal) where it actually turned out to be one of the most plush rooms we will likely ever stay; river-front with views of a bridge and the PGE National Stadium. When we were biking through the pouring rain in Chile, Ville had asked to camp in a farmer's barn and the man actually said, "No, it's not hygienic" and Ville, stressed that we would be turned away, argued that it was just fine for his wife before the man insisted we camp in his clean shed. After that experience in Chile, we hysterically reference it in how low the bar is set for what Ville deems acceptable for his bride to sleep in. Animal feces you say? No problem! She's a champ! My wife will sleep anywhere. Needless to say this place was on the far opposite spectrum of the animal barn and pretty dang pimp!
We spent a day walking all around Warsaw; the Old Town, Mila 18 (bunker where 51 Jewish resistance fighters had died), History of Polish Jews Museum, and The University Library, one of my favorite buildings with a giant garden with lots of little spaces to explore on it's rooftop. We tried to go to a football (soccer) game, but didn't know until we got there we needed passports to get in, so walked along the miles of riverfront promenade and snacked at food carts instead. We biked south of the city the following day to meet Szymon who bought us lunch, stored our bikes, and even drove us to the airport to fly to Prague for four nights. Thanks Szymon!
Prague was a dream! A massive city not bombed to the ground in WW2 and most of the city preserved by the Czech Republic so lots to explore. We left the biking clothes behind with the bikes and I was able to wear non-sweaty clothes for 5 glorious days while using our legs to walk to all corners of the city. We took an Alternative Walking Tour of Prague, focused on graffiti, art, random sights, and the non-touristy sights of the City. We walked across the City up to the Zizkov Television Tower, built by the Czechs under Soviet rule, and had lunch with some of the best 360 degree views of the City. We even stayed in a giant purple room with a kitchen and washing machine. If you have noticed I mention washing machines often as a highlight, it's from spending over 2 years now hand washing sweaty bicycling clothes in sinks when I am exhausted at the end of a bunch of consecutive camping days. A washing machine is a massive perk.
After four nights/ five days in Prague, we flew back to Warsaw and stayed a night in Szymon's home (they were out of town) and headed out the next day south. A massive Thank You to Szymon for your hospitality! Although we had the best intentions of meandering slowly and taking our sweet time to make it to Krakow, the sweltering heat was making me sweat buckets, causing issues with chafing, and leaving me with migraines every evening in the tent. I just couldn't drink enough liquids to stay hydrated and so popped migraine pills like candy each day and used Baby Wipes to sop up all the salt on my skin by night. It took us three and a half days to get to Krakow and I really can't remember many highlights through my delirium.
On day four of biking from Warsaw, we dropped down a small hill (I really think our first since we started this bike tour in Eastern Europe) and into Krakow and found our weird little apartment. With all the best intentions of seeing the sights, we got up early to wander around the City and were back in our room early to crank the A/C and sit in temps under 100' with 80+ percent humidity. Neither of us grew up with A/C and almost never use it, but unfortunately, the temps are just too hot to be in. I keep asking people, "Is this normal?" thinking it's just a heat wave, but the answer is sadly, YES. The planet is warming up. Bend, Oregon use to be 70-80 degrees in the summers when I was a kid, now it is 90-100 degrees every summer. More people need A/C units. This sadly is the new normal. But trying to be proactive, Ville and I are cutting way back on meat, but mainly dairy/beef. Cows will soon pass oil/gas in greenhouse gas emissions and so eating less helps. So does not using plastic bags, these also have been found to emit methane when exposed to light. The small things, when everyone joins in, become big solutions!
On our second day in Krakow, we were picked up by a van early for a tour to Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II - Birkenau, and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. World War II had been briefly touched on in my American Education (I remember reading Anne Frank), but after asking Ville so many questions as we biked past lots of museums, concentration camps turned sights of remembrance, all over Eastern Europe, I spent a day reading up on WW I and WWII to familiarize myself with Eastern Europe's very distant past. A past that ended in only 1945, less than one person's lifetime away. If you haven't spent the time, I highly recommend doing so as well. "Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it" - George Santayana
Auschwitz was really, really heavy and very surreal to be inside of. I actually felt the weight of it once we walked in under the ARBEIT MACHT FREI archway into the barbed wired compound. We went building by building with a guide explaining the horrific details of what happened to real people there. If you have not been to this place, again, I recommend going. It is something that words cannot describe. We saw massive rooms stacked to the ceilings with shoes, eyeglasses, clothing, suitcases (having been brought by people all believing they were being relocated to a better place to work and live). Their families were separated immediately after unloading from the packed cattle train cars and put into two separate lines: those that could work and those that could not. Those that could not were led to underground enormous rooms and told they would strip naked and get showers. Even the rooms were outfitted with fake shower heads. Here they were gassed with poison used for rodents and their bodies burned in incinerators by those that could work. The gas chambers could hold up to 2,000 people and 12,000 could be gassed and incinerated each day. The image that sticks in my mind the most is one of the massive rooms full to the ceiling and walled behind glass: human hair. It was used by the Germans to weave into rope and clothe after shaving it from all those that arrived, used for army blankets and socks for U-Boat Crews.
Auschwitz II - Birkenau was built after Auschwitz I became too small and was about 450 acres of barracks surrounded by electric barbed wire fencing. Each barrack had shelving/bunks three compartments high packed in with starving people, those deemed able to work. Just for a minute think about that number for this is only ONE of 20 large concentration camps, with thousands of sub-camps, built by the Germans for the sole purpose of killing people, mainly Jews, but also Romas (Gypsies), Slavs, homosexuals, mentally challenged, and others: 450 acres of barracks, each one packed full of people working without food until they were too weak and then were gassed. The size of this place is what stuck with me the most. Before WWII, there were about 11 million Jews living in Europe. During the Nazi Party's rise to power in Germany , the German take-over of surrounding countries during WWII and the Holocaust, 6 million Jews and millions of others were killed.
After Auschwitz, we rode in the van about an hour just south of Krakow to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Having biked over the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and visited the Maras Salt Mine in Peru, I expected just to get out of the van and look at a lake bed of salt. The Wieliczka Salt Mine was incredible! We walked down 400 spiraling wooden steps and walked 1.8 miles through caverns and hallways of chilly salt, only a glimpse of the 180 miles of tunnels. As you can see in the photos, there are statues, carvings, salt pools and even multiple churches where everything inside; floors, walls, ceiling, statues and even chandeliers are all carved salt. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a place absolutely worth seeing.
After our very full day, we had a nights sleep before we headed south out of Krakow towards the border of Slovakia and into the foothills of the Tatar Mountains. As we began climbing the temps began to slowly decline. We found a Homestay at a small farm in the foothills called Na Zagrodzie and were treated very warmly by Anna and her family. Riding up and out from their place, we climbed along the river about 40 miles, many of the climbs 9-12 percent inclines very reminiscent of Guatemalan hill climbs. By the time we crossed the Slovakian boarder and dropped into Sucha Hora (oh yes, it is really called that!) and got a hotel, we were both beat. And as my luck seems to go with technology on this trip, my brand new cell phone decided not to turn on for no reason. Even after trying all the YouTube video tricks. Ville is still working on finding a place to try and fix it. We both rolled out our aching muscles on a little ball of magic I'm packing called The Orb (you can use a lacrosse ball) and were able to get up, a little less muscle tight in the morning, inhale some more pierogis and head out with more climbing into the Slavakian mountains.
We had two decent steep climbs for the day, over 2000 ft elevation (after over 16,000 ft in Peru this is child's play) but found a place open for lunch and thoroughly enjoyed the views! We both agreed we would rather climb all day long to have beautiful views and speedy downhills in our days. And there are cyclists everywhere, cars drive slower and make room as they go around us, the air is cleaner, ski resorts everywhere, and the Slovakian people are super friendly! A stark difference from our experiences of the people in Poland. Although we met a few very kind people, Polish people felt more reserved, didn't return our smiles, hellos, or go out of their way to help us. Many actually turned us away when we asked to camp, written note asking in Polish or not. Language was a huge barrier for us, not speaking any Polish, and maybe our trip through would have been far different if we spoke Polish. Very few Polish speak English from our experiences, including the youth, and so many places we asked if someone spoke English we just got a hard, "No." I think maybe those in Poland that think Polish speak English are not speaking English to other Polish people. But knowing more about the history in Poland; invaded, again and again, the majority of the concentration camps from WWII all around Poland bringing tourism hugely for that purpose, I understand where maybe it's not the friendliest of places. I can understand having reservations about strangers. And we travel to experience all people and cultures with all their differences.
After a full day with our two climbs, we dropped down out of the mountains, pedaled around the shores of one of the few lakes in Slovakia, and made it to our pension in Ruzomberok. We took a day off here today, taking a short walk through town, but mainly hunkering down as after a handful of days dodging all the large thunderheads, today it actually poured rain (what timing!) and worked on writing all of you. I wanted to thank you all for continuing to follow us, for taking the time to read our Blog, for writing us emails and comments below, and supporting our continued travel. It is a lot of work to take a day to put this all together on the road, but knowing you read it, makes it worth it for me. I know this last post had some heavy material in it, but there is kindness everywhere and I hope this continues to inspire others to get out there in the world! The more friends we make all over, makes this planet smaller, minimizes our differences and reminds us how similar we are. Thanks Everyone!
Until the next stop, keep on keepin' on...
Eastern European T-Shirt Sayings Continued: "Hidden Jungle", "NASA" (we see tons of these with no idea why?), "No One Knows I Care Nothing", "Brave Mind", "Speed Xtreme", "Running Sucks", "Youth Has No Age", and "Peak Performance Extreme"
K.G. & Ville
On a Book Tour
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!” - Hunter S. Thompson