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Saturday, 01 February 2014

Cycling in the Tatra Mountains, Poland

Written by Dale Fehringer
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The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.

      -- Saint Augustine 


We kept hearing a trumpet blow in the distance – a mournful tune that abruptly ended.  A street entertainer, we assumed.  But that night at dinner we heard the Legend of the Trumpeter.  


In the 13th century, according to the legend, descendents of Genghis Khan known as the Tartars invaded Poland, burning towns and farms, plundering and killing.  The people of Krakow were terrified they would be next, and they established watchmen around the clock in the church tower. One night, when most of the townspeople were in church, the watchman on duty noticed Tartars approaching the city.  He blew a warning on his trumpet.  The Tartars shot arrows at the tower, but the watchman continued to sound the trumpet until an arrow struck him in the throat.  The townspeople responded to the alert and forced the enemy out.  The city was saved, but the trumpeter died from his wound.  Ever since then, watchmen have stood guard over the city from the church tower, and every hour around the clock a trumpet is played.  The song always ends suddenly – in honor of the trumpeter who gave his life for his people.



The Tatra Mountains

We were in Krakow, Poland to cycle in the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland.  We had signed up for a one-week bicycle adventure with a Krakow-based tour company.  They furnished bicycles, hotel rooms, a guide, and some of the meals.  Our job was to show up, cycle, and enjoy.


The Tatra Mountains, part of the Carpathians, are located 60 miles south of Krakow.  They form a border between Poland and Slovakia, and the Dunajec River has carved a fertile, green gorge that meanders among their peaks.  This was our playground for the week – cycling among the flora, fauna, and the Gorale, a clan of highlanders known for their music, culture, and costumes.  


This is an area full of history, friendly people, and beautiful scenery.  But it’s not filled with tourists, because it is not as popular (yet) as other European destinations.  

 Poland Map

Poland Map Detail


Adventurous Souls

This was the largest cycling group we had been part of: 34 of us from eight countries, plus Tomas, our guide from Poland.  This was also the first bicycle tour we had been on that combined self-guided and guided groups.  There were 10 of us being guided through the Tatra Mountains; the rest were given maps and directions and found their own way.    


Everyone in the group spoke some English and we had little trouble communicating with them.  We were from diverse backgrounds and a variety of countries – it was a collection of adventurous souls drawn together to explore this beautiful corner of the world.



Exploring Krakow

Our trip began in Krakow’s main square (Rynek Glowny).  This former Polish capital has an extensive history and a lot to do and see, including castles and churches that date back to the Middle Ages.  The main square is vibrant and full of people, shops, and restaurants.  It dates back to the 13th century and is the largest medieval town square in Europe.  Along with Wawel Hill (also in Krakow), it is listed in 1,000 Places to See Before you Die.  


Krakow was not damaged during World War II, so everything is pretty much the way it’s been for hundreds of years.  It’s an easy town to explore by foot; with good food, good shopping (especially amber), and day trips to Auschwitz and the Wieliczka salt mines.


Krakow was celebrating the holiday of Corpus Christi, which involved a parade of locals in traditional costumes (fur hats, long colorful coats, and sabers), speeches, firing of cannons, huge dragon balloons, and entertainment for the children.


We explored Krakow’s Jewish quarter, where Jews have lived since the 1300s.  It was here in the 1940’s that the Nazis rounded up and murdered or sent to Auschwitz nearly all of the 65,000 Jews in Krakow.  We saw Schindler’s factory and re-heard the story of how he saved 1,200 Jews from certain death.


We boarded buses and rode south to the village of Zab and the ski resort town of Zakopane.  Our first night in the mountains was in a sweet little hotel on the outskirts of town with views of green fields, hills, and trees.



Zakopane, Chocholow, and the Gorale People

Zakopane is the winter capital of Poland and the center of Gorale culture.  It’s a popular destination for mountaineering, skiing, and tourism and has been the host of many ski-jumping championships.


We put our bikes on a funicular, rode to the top of the mountain, and cycled down the back side, gliding through a beautiful forest on a quiet path to lunch at a quaint little restaurant with excellent goulash.  After lunch, the rain let up and we took our time touring the storybook village of Chocholow.  


Chocholow is an outdoor museum of Gorale architecture, with one main street and rows of single-story wooden houses. The hand-crafted buildings are made of timbered wood with shingle-covered roofs.  Each is embellished by elaborate wood-carved accents of geometric and floral patterns, with a unique carved wooden shrine near the front door.

The houses look new and clean, from a yearly washing and polishing with wood soap.  Most of the houses have beautifully-maintained gardens that are the hallmark of the Gorale highlanders.  One of the houses has a museum that tells the story of the village.



Making Friends

Spending whole days with strangers presents opportunities to get to know each other, and we quickly found ourselves making friends within our group.  Tomas, our guide, is a Krakow native.  He’s 38, thinly-built and handsome, with dark, curly hair.  He is married, with a 10-year-old daughter who goes to elementary school in Krakow. He is fluent in Polish, English, and German; speaks some Spanish and Russian; and makes a living leading bicycle tour groups in the summer and teaching English and German the rest of the year.   He also runs marathons, which is probably why he is thinly-built.


Zen and Susie live in Australia, where Zen is a surgeon and Susie is a vintner.  Zen’s mother was born in Poland, and he learned to speak Polish from her, so he became our translator.  He also was our hero one evening when he used his Polish and his charm to talk the hotel staff out of a portable heater, came to our hotel room, took our wet shoes to his room, and dried them overnight.  Susie kept us thoroughly entertained with her witticisms and her knowledge of literature, movies, and geography.


Eric and Abby are English (Abby admits to being Cockney).  Abby is a physician in London, and Eric teaches bicycle safety to children.  They had been on several cycling trips, and they enjoyed sharing their experiences with our group.  They had outrageous senses of humor, and they continually mugged for cameras, told us about their wild adventures, and entertained us with their interpretation of life in England.  We looked forward each day to see what pranks they would pull.

 Poland Group


Following the Dunajec River

Our first full day of cycling was cloudy and cool – just right for cycling.  We bounced out of bed, dressed, ate a hearty breakfast, and retrieved our bicycles from the hotel storage room.  We cycled along the rivers that flow into the mighty Dunajec, which was roaring from recent heavy rains.  The paths were wet and filled with puddles, and a light rain started to fall.  The architecture changed from Polish to Hungarian, with rounded towers and dark wood.  This area was part of Hungary until 1918, when after World War I it was changed to Poland.  


At the village of Debno we toured the church of St. Michael Archangel, built in the 15th century and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The beautiful painted interior includes Gothic art and highland folk tradition.  Local legend has it that the church was built by highland robbers, to whom St. Michael Archangel revealed himself on an oak tree.  



Their Way of Doing Things

The Polish have a somewhat unusual way of doing things, which we started to notice.  For example:  We had cycled in rain most of the day, and we were drenched and cold when we reached our hotel.  We needed to get dry and warm.  The heater in our room wouldn’t work; the instructions were in Polish, so we assumed we were doing something wrong, and we asked for help.  “The heaters aren’t turned on in the summer,” the woman at the front desk told us, “Only in the winter.”  “But we’re soaked and cold – can you turn the heaters on for a little bit?”  But she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make an exception.  Those were the rules, and they had to be followed.  


Darn, we thought.  Well, we would put our wet gear on the heated towel rack in our bathroom (that’s right, the rooms in these modest hotels had heated towel racks).  So we hung everything on the towel rack, turned it to high, and changed into dry clothes.  An hour later the towel rack was still cold, so we called the front desk for help.  The same woman came up, fiddled with the controls on the towel rack, and announced that the towel racks weren’t turned on in the summer either – only in the winter!  We had been had by the Polish mentality, and we were stuck with wet clothes!



“I Know a Girl in Slovakia”

One of the Germans in our group promised we would see sun the next day – and we did.  It threatened rain in the morning, so we put on our rain gear and headed out along the Dunajec River, cycling on small streets and narrow paths.  The rain held off and the sun came out, which made the dew on the grass sparkle.  As we cycled, Tomas told us his family vacationed here (on the Polish side of the river) when he was a boy.  In those years, Poland was controlled by the Russians, who enforced strict border controls between countries, and Tomas and his family could not cross the river into Slovakia.  As boys, they sat at the river’s edge and talked about what life must be like in Slovakia.  Tomas remembers singing a song with his friends about crossing the river into Slovakia to meet girls, and he translated the song title as “I Know a Girl in Slovakia.”


We crossed the river on a modern footbridge into Slovakia.  The currency changed to Euros and the language changed to Slovak.  We cycled along the river on a beautiful path through a spectacular gorge with the three major mountain peaks (known as the Three Crowns) on our left.  



Here life hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years.  Wood is still cut and piled for winter home heating, and homes have large vegetable gardens for eating and canning.  Women gather to gossip and horse-drawn carts rattle past, taking locals to town and hauling hay to farms.  


In the afternoon, we cycled back across the river into Poland and followed the river through farmlands and villages.  Along the way we noticed hay in fields stacked in narrow piles as high as a man.  The Polish refer to these as “hay soldiers,” and they make an interesting sight from a distance.  We spent the night in Szezawaca, a modern spa and tourist town on the river. 



“Mother, Mother-in-law and Son”

Rain was threatening the next morning, but it stayed away.  (Our German friends took full credit).  We cycled through the Dunajec gorge along the river with green hills on both sides.  It was an easy downhill ride, along a path built for hikers and cyclists. 


This is why we travel by bicycle:  We saw gardens of peonies, irises, and pansies, which turned the countryside into a kaleidoscope of color, and we heard storks talking to each other from chimney tops.  Religious shrines stood guard in front of cottages, villagers waved and wished us well, and school children chimed “good morning” to us in English.

 Poland Haysoldiers

We enjoyed an excellent lunch of potato pancakes and strong homemade plum brandy at a charming roadside restaurant.


The afternoon’s ride consisted mostly of cycling up three large hills the locals call the Mother, Mother-in-law, and Son.  It was tough going, and as we struggled up the “mother-in-law” hill, a group of self-guided Germans from our group came up behind us.  They were uncharacteristically quiet, so we asked if they were OK.  “Hans led us on the wrong road and up the wrong hill,” they told us.  Hans was visibly upset, but as they went by his wife just shrugged.  “Shit happens,” she said with a smile.


We spent the night in Rytro, an old feudal village at the bottom of castle ruins.  



Heroes and Heroines

Pope John Paul II is a hero in Poland, and we saw many statues and posters with his image: a smiling Pope; a waving Pope; a blessing Pope.  Born Karol Józef Wojty?a in the nearby village of Wadowice, he went to college and seminary in Krakow before being elected Pope.  His first foreign visit was to his native Poland, and he traveled there often as Pope.  


In the village of Stary Sacz, we explored the Sanctuary of Saint Kinga, one of Poland’s heroines.  She was born in Esztergom, Hungary, the daughter of the Hungarian king.  She married Boleslaw V the Chaste, and became a princess when he ascended the throne. During her reign, Kinga was involved in many charitable works such as visiting the poor and helping lepers, and when her husband died, she sold her possessions, gave the money to the poor, joined the sisters of the Poor Clares, and spent the rest of her life at a convent.  She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in June, 1999 and is the patron saint of salt miners.  


Travel:  A Learning Experience

We cycled to Nowy Sacz for lunch and a tour of the city, followed by a bus ride back to Krakow.  This ride felt different than the one from Krakow a week earlier – this time we were sharing it with friends; and we were talking, teasing each other, telling jokes, and singing.  


Our farewell evening in Krakow consisted of dinner in the Jewish quarter, followed by beautiful and soulful Jewish folk music.  


We walked back to our hotel with our new friends chatting about the weather, politics, and what was waiting for us back home.  It all seemed so natural, somehow, to be sharing our final evening in Poland with these people.  We had spent the past week with them – cycling, eating, exploring, and learning – and we felt a bond with them.  We were comfortable telling them about our lives, our hopes, and our dreams.  And yet, we knew that after we got home we would probably never see them again.  That’s travel.  We experience it, we share it, and we learn from it.  



©Dale Fehringer

Photos © Patty McCrary


Last modified on Saturday, 01 March 2014