Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Into the mountains

Much as I love the endless plains of Mazovia, I jump at any chance to get some real contours around me. And so a visit to friends in Katowice extended into a short trip to the Silesian Beskid (Beskid Śląski) mountains. We chanced upon a place called Zagroda Lepiarzówka, right on the Polish-Czech border. Marvellous hotel - 12 quid a head B&B, beer 60p a pint, excellent service, wonderful wooden folk architecture. The photo below is taken from the hotel's terrace bar. Quite a different view than what you'd see in Jeziorki.

An evening's stroll offered a taste of what was in store for the morning - a long walk into the Czech Republic. On 31 December this year, Poland and its two southern neighbours will join the Schengen countries and their mutual borders will effectively disappear - it will become like crossing from England into Wales. But today, there's still the frisson of excitement - will there be armed guards lurking behind the trees, like there are on the Polish-Belarusian or Polish Ukrainian borders? Will our documents be in order?

In the photo above, the border runs along the path. To the right of that post is the Czech Republic, to the left is Poland. The mountain in the distance is Stożek Wielki, that notch carved into its peak is the border. We walked up there, and enjoyed some mulled beer with mead in the 85 year-old mountain restaurant just beyond the peak. Thus fortified, we descended into the Czech Republic. The plan was to do a brief incursion lasting two hours and re-emerge in Poland at Stozek Maly.

I'd checked the weather forecast the day before, and it showed clear skies and warm temperatures. But it was not to be. As soon as we'd crossed the (unmanned) border, the weather closed in on us (below). Soon we were enveloped in thick mist. Fortunately it was not too cold and the rain was light (I worry about my consumer electronics!)

Aesthetically, the Czech incursion was a success. Walking through giant silent forests shrouded in dense mist put me in mind of primordial scenes; hundred-foot high Permian horsetails and three-foot dragonflies. Recent history is also interesting. I recalled a British TV drama about Czechoslovakian dissidents making their way to the West German border, getting across, being greeting by US soldiers and debriefed by the CIA - only to discover that it was all a set-up entrapment plot and that in reality they had not left Czechoslovakia at all...

With such thoughts in mind, we rambled on following the tourist tracks until we came across a very CSSR-type establishment, a village shop that was virtually unchanged since communist days (apart from the modern selection of confectionary on display and the shopkeeper's friendly manner). We stocked up on chocolate and wafers and headed back up the mountainside towards Poland, climbing onward and upward until we made the border as planned at Stożek Mały.

Once again, the border crossing point (below) was unmanned. Notices stated that from between 06:00 and 22:00, there should be an official present to ensure that locals crossing the border do not exceed their quotas of alcohol, tobacco or meat products, that their motorcycle engines do not exceed 50cc, or that their agricultural produce is only for local consumption. We were relieved that the booth was empty; in eight months time it will be history.

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