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I've long been considering some sort of mammoth overland journey. While surfing some Land Rover and overland websites I came across the following account of a South African couples experiences in Poland.
Surprised looks at our car registration, but no hassles at the border. The narrow main roads had been patched over and over and were as bumpy as a gravel road.
We went to Wroclaw (pronounced: ‘Vrotswhaf’ in English) to walk around the old town which had been rebuilt after 75% WW II destruction. On the ancient salt Market Square there was an amazing volume of lovely long stemmed roses for sale. Under the gothic arches of the old town hall we heard a live orchestra and a performance of opera arias. Wroclaw has a unique huge circular painting (114m x 15m). The canvas depicts a famous battle and was painted in 1894, a century after the battle.
Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps were used from 1940 to 1945 to exterminate about 2 million people. The entire spread out area is now a museum. The barbed wire encampments with watchtowers contain prisoners’ living quarters, with crude bunks and washing facilities. In the buildings are also the SS confiscated photos, documents and mountains of possessions (like combs and brushes, spectacles, artificial limbs and women’s hair,). The retreating Nazis partly destroyed all except one of the gas chambers and crematoria. The ominous railway tracks and ramps are still intact.
The batteries still did not seem to be charging properly. We decided to plug in at a Camp site and go into Krakow by bus. There was no war damage in Krakow and the old plaza with the beautiful 16th century Renaissance Cloth Hall is stunning. Inside the old building are souvenir stalls with amber, woodcarving, dolls, leather, etc. Leoné simply could not decide what amber object to buy. Roundly polished looked like beads. Rough ones looked like stones. Large clear ones Jan defined as fakes. T-shirts with the CK-logo (“City of Krakow”; not “Calvin Klein”) were going for a song.
We were enchanted by a coffee shop, in an old building with low vaulted ceiling. Hessian coffee bags covered the seats and screens and antique coffee making accessories were displayed. The Polish music was like 60’s folk. The chain of coffee bars is called “Sklep z Kawq Pozegmanie z Afryka” (“Shop of Coffee Farewell to Africa”)!
Around the old town, what used to be the defensive wall and moat, is now a green belt called in Polish: “Planty”. The benches in the shade are for weary sightseers.
The Polish folklore museum showed embroidered traditional costumes, and painted peasant houses. There was an old water powered press to extract oil from flax. There were examples of intricate paper cutting art. The rituals associated with painted eggs and spring festivals and crib building competitions at Christmas were shown. We saw the equipment used to beat hand-woven woollen fabric in boiling water to make it thicker for freezing winters.
As in many Polish cities, the Jewish population was exterminated. Krakow had 70,000; now there are 100. Steven Spielberg’s “Schindlers List” tells the story.
We trudged up the Wawel hill to the 16th C Castle and the Cathedral where 100 kings and queens are buried. We were suffering from impression overload and decided to head for the salt mines….
In slow 5pm traffic we drove 15km outside Krakow to the Wielicza salt mine. We parked the night next to a restaurant. Leoné had excellent duck. Jan had a meat dish served in a “bowl” made out of bread, complete with crust lid. Next morning, down to 135 m, walking through an eerie world of pits and chambers, hand hewn out of solid salt during the last 700 years. Down at this level, there is a carved out cathedral. It has sculptures and chandeliers of salt crystal. It took 30 years and 20,000 tons of rock salt had to be removed. The newest statue is of the Polish Pope. He has been in office since 1978. His recent visit attracted huge crowds in Poland. (Still very much a Catholic country).
Warsaw. In 1939 the city was bombed and 10% was destroyed, but after the uprising in 1944 the Nazis systematically demolished 85% of the city. Over half of the population of 700 000 perished. The old Town Square was rebuilt in the ‘50s, but the castle only in 1984, with money collected from Poles worldwide. The interiors are as beautiful as when originally built. From the Communist era there are many grey faceless apartment blocks and a monstrous Palace of Culture. Things to see were so spread out that we did not use public transport. We had overnight parking at a centrally situated campsite; also in a park and at a sports field. We had the sand ladders over the back windows and we felt quite safe.
Sunday at noon there was a Chopin music concert, next to his large statue in a garden of red roses. It was very hot and we brought our deck chairs to the shade. We never found any concrete tributes to Copernicus (astronomer), but we did find the Marie Curie museum (discoverer of radium). The National Museum displayed Polish art from 19th/20th century.
While searching for a supermarket, we saw a parking area with a boom, and spikes, which go down into the ground, when the boom is lifted. Later, in the parking area of a Hypermarket, Jan saw how the owner was shoved aside and his big new station wagon hijacked.
We made a 500km detour to visit the Bialowieza National Park on the Belarus border. Russian tsars, German dukes and kings had hunted there and although they had depleted it of animals, the primeval forest was preserved. An ornithologist took us on a lovely hike. (However, there were no visible birds). Nearby in the European Bison Reserve we saw some of the 250 bison in the Park. There are only 3000 worldwide; also wolves, wild boar and deer could be seen
We were heading south to the Slovak border. On the outskirts of Lublin in front of the Open air Museum we parked for the night. There were cars and people around. It was hot and we sat outside writing until late. At about midnight, shouting and banging on the Camper’s sides awakened us. L said, “Stop it!” Jan said “Schh”. The pulling and hammering on the doors and cursing became more violent. A blow cracked the right front side window. One was tugging on the back door. Jan was watching at the front (He thought he might open the window and spray him). The attacker moved the mirror arm and by hanging onto it and with one foot on the wheel, and while looking straight at Jan, he kicked the left front window several times till it broke out of its frame with a crash. As he landed on his feet, his face was level with the opening. Jan sprayed him. He reversed and came forward again with his elbow over his nose. Then he got the “chilli juice” straight in the eyes and face. He spluttered and gasped: “Gaz!” Thug no. 2 came to the same opening and Jan was ready to give him a full dose of Oleocapsicum in the face. While they were stumbling about blinded and coughing, Jan found the keys (it felt like an eternity) and we could drive off. Some of the gas got to the back and Leoné had her face in a pillow. Although we wanted to get far away fast, we had to stop to remove the glass fragments Jan was sitting on! We spent the rest of the night at an all-night garage, which also served as the local hooker hang out. Never a dull moment! (It would be a very long time before we did not fit the steel mesh screens, also on the front, again.)
The following night we camped next to a Polish family, who invited us to their campfire for Polish vodka, roasted potatoes and folk songs. On to the Ukraine....
There are pictures and other accounts here:
Four years around the world in a Land Rover
One more country
An account of driving around the world, in an extensively modified Land Rover Forward Control Series 2B.
The guidebook said that one could get visas at the border, but we were sent back 128km into Slovakia. The Ukraine Consul first spoke of pre-booked accommodation and tourist vouchers but after much explaining and pleading he gave us two three-day transit visas. It was 36oC and humid. Before the border we found peaceful parking next to a lake. When it was cool enough to sleep, two discos started up and blasted mega decibels until 3 the next morning.
The next day the border procedure took 4 hours. It consisted of: forms for immigration, vehicle importation & other possessions, money declaration; hand-written registers; payments for medical insurance, road tax & ecological tax. 9 stamps had to be collected on one piece of scrap paper.
A huge Red Army monument welcomed us to this Ex-Soviet State. (Just larger than France). We read that Ukraine had been a cradle of Nationalism against Russian oppression. Stalin wanted to stamp out Nationalism. In 1932 he created a famine by setting unrealistic grain production quotas, and placed the grain silos under armed guard ‘until the quotas were met’. The population, including the peasants who toiled in the fields, starved to death. Between 5 and 7 million people died.
The scenery was of woodland and rolling cultivated hills. Rural villages were patchworks of flowers and painted fences encircling neat rows of vegetables. (Private ownership of agricultural land has been introduced but Ukrainians cannot afford equipment. Average monthly salary is $60 and pensioners receive only $2). We were inspired, for a change, to take lots of photographs but it was cloudy and it became darker and darker at midday. ? We realised it was the Solar eclipse!
We soon had to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet because most road signs had no Roman letters. The roads were patched and bumpy. Many roadside-parking areas had a large concrete ramp (so drivers could repair their vehicles!). Colourful mosaic panels covered the walls of bus shelters throughout the country; contrasting with grey houses and faceless apartment blocks. On the outskirts of cities there were abandoned factories with broken windows and collapsing walls. In the middle of nowhere large new houses were being constructed. Was this the joy of getting out of the concrete apartment blocks or is buying building material, a way of coping with rampant inflation? We saw churches being restored and new ones under construction.
In three days we could not get to the capital, Kiev in the East, or Odessa on the Black sea; and we did not want to go to Chernobyl in the North! We went to Lviv. Once past the huge Soviet monument we battled through the uneven cobbled streets with Cyrillic names, to the town centre. The palace that used to be the Lenin museum is now the National Museum with 15th to 20th century art from Western Ukraine. The sumptuous opera house is at the top of a large attractive park like pedestrian area with benches and sidewalk cafes. We chose one, which said, “Welcome to Lviv” but only Ukrainian and Russian were spoken. Cherry juice, beer, mushrooms, “borscht” soup, grilled shish kebab, Odessa champagne, Cappuccino. All for $10. Round the corner was the market. Private trading was prohibited in the Communist era. Now there were many hopefuls waiting behind a sad little heap of wares. (We saw groups of up to five people by the roadside at night in pouring rain trying to sell one basketful of wild mushrooms). The handicraft market had reasonably priced embroidered cloths and blouses, also wooden articles and sets of nesting dolls (matryoshka). The large department store was still rather sparsely stocked but full of people; looked like a 1950s departmental trading store. In spite of the communication problem, we found people particularly friendly.
In the evening, we spoke to the “large cap” police, who said it would be safe to remain parked in front of the elegant, turn of the century Hotel Zhorzh. (George, for those not yet into Ukrainian spelling). There were 5 patrolling the area. At 3 in the morning we heard someone against Dipli. Leoné was scared. Jan whispered: “Nothing to worry about. It’s a policeman.” The tampering at the front of Dipli became louder. Jan shone a bright flashlight into the face of the man who had been trying to steal the spotlight. The uniformed policeman jumped back and slunk off... The next night we found a semi-abandoned camping ground in an overgrown ex holiday resort with large dilapidated buildings. One decaying wooden structure still had a just-about-functioning bathroom.
Between Lviv and Chernivtsi traffic police on an open road stopped us. We pretended not to understand but were shown the primitive radar apparatus and the reading of 52 km/h in stead of 40 km/h. A construction machine parked next to the road, (but no actual work in progress) was their excuse for the low limit! $5 fine.
Soon we were stopped again by a different uniform. Eventually we understood something about ecological (would you believe!) certificate. The Chernobyl disaster, polluted rivers, acid rain, contaminated soils, are a legacy of ruthless Soviet industrialisation. And we were asked for an emission control certificate! We showed him all the tens of other pieces of paper we had. He gave up and we could continue.
At the border, when we wanted to leave Ukraine, the boom guard, a real mean looking, sunflower-seed-spitting, character asked for a $5 bribe. We refused and were made to wait. When the next shift came on, we were able to proceed into Romania.
The second time we went through Ukraine (from Moldova) we chose the route along the Carpathian National Park with river and forest scenery. We went to the Saturday folk craft market in the small village of Kosiv, where there was much trade in everything from hand spun wool to pink piglets and scrap iron. In a moment of weakness we bought two bulky hand-woven blankets which seemed to expand inside the camper. In nearby Kolomya was the regional museum of folk art. It had carved wooden tools, boxes and furniture, leather craft, musical instruments, basketry, weavings, embroidered dresses and waist coats, painted eggs (pysanki) and hand made ceramic tableware. (In the midst of Soviet rule the authorities even banned folk embroidery as ‘dissident nationalistic activism’ .
"We were heading south to the Slovak border. On the outskirts of Lublin in front of the Open air Museum we parked for the night. There were cars and people around. It was hot and we sat outside writing until late. At about midnight, shouting and banging on the Camper’s sides awakened us. L said, “Stop it!” Jan said “Schh”. The pulling and hammering on the doors and cursing became more violent. A blow cracked the right front side window. One was tugging on the back door. Jan was watching at the front (He thought he might open the window and spray him). The attacker moved the mirror arm and by hanging onto it and with one foot on the wheel, and while looking straight at Jan, he kicked the left front window several times till it broke out of its frame with a crash. As he landed on his feet, his face was level with the opening. Jan sprayed him. He reversed and came forward again with his elbow over his nose. Then he got the “chilli juice” straight in the eyes and face. He spluttered and gasped: “Gaz!” Thug no. 2 came to the same opening and Jan was ready to give him a full dose of Oleocapsicum in the face. While they were stumbling about blinded and coughing, Jan found the keys (it felt like an eternity) and we could drive off. Some of the gas got to the back and Leoné had her face in a pillow. Although we wanted to get far away fast, we had to stop to remove the glass fragments Jan was sitting on! We spent the rest of the night at an all-night garage, which also served as the local hooker hang out. Never a dull moment! (It would be a very long time before we did not fit the steel mesh screens, also on the front, again.) "
Where did the gas come from? The Polish criminals or the occupants of the Land Rover?
The traveling Boers used their own pepper-spray.