Sunday, 2 May 2010

A ride across rural Poland

May Day Bank Holiday. The Feast of the Working Man. P'yervomaysk. My plan for the day was ambitious; to get as far as I could to Kraks by bicycle and local train, arriving in time for the Polandian blogmeet. Lots of preparation and planning, and a conscious decision not to take an SLR camera; all photos below taken on my Nokia N95 mobile phone.

I left home at daybreak just before five. The route was planned as follows - home - Piaseczno - Grójec - Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą - Końskie - Jędrzejów. At Jędrzejów, I would pick up the all-stations to Kraków service, getting me in to Kraks by quarter to six in the evening.

The air smells quite different at 5am on a spring or summer day; a beautiful fresh smell that's all but gone by 7am. There's no one about other than the occasional bakery van, the bird song pervades one's consciousness. This is the beauty of cycling. On foot, you're covering ground slowly. In a car you are insulated from the outside world by laminated glass and the sound of the engine, and the landscape is flashing by to fast for you to acquire a more reflective relationship with it. On a bike you are moving three times faster than walking pace, three times slower than by car.

Once clear of Piaseczno and the southern edge of the Warsaw agglomeration, the landscape along the 722 to Grójec is dominated by orchards. If Kent is the Garden of England, then Grójec and the surrounding district is Poland's equivalent. At this time of year, the apple and cherry trees are all in bloom. Beyond Grójec, I pick up the 728, which leads all the way down to Jędrzejów. Here there's still orchard and blossom, but the landscape becomes more undulating. I pass Mogielnica, where my paternal grandmother was born. There is a familiarity of klimat; slight hilliness, orchards, masses of blossom against a darkening sky.
Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą: Holdsworth Triath Elan and Lim-5

Above: 8:30 am. Three and half hours/75km into the journey, Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą, which used to be home to an airbase during the Cold War. [There's still lots of this kind of post-Soviet empire stuff all over Poland. The Lim-5 and Lim-6 were Polish licence-built versions of the MiG-17 fighter / fighter-bomber. Here's a list of all existing Lim-5s, -6s and MiG-17s gracing Poland's public spaces.]

Crossing the Pilica river, the landscape changes, it's flatter, the orchards give way to arable farms, the klimat is 1950s America. I'm in my stride. The road surface is good, slight tailwind, bike working perfectly in harmony with my legs, nicely run in. A while more and I have a break at a petrol station and a light breakfast. As I rested and ate, I observed across the road, a mother (in her 60s) and her son (mid-30s) planting potatoes. He was seated on a tractor and yelling furiously at her. She was bent double over the soil, patiently putting up with it all, as she'd done for a lifetime. This scene went on for several minutes before he finally roared off on his tractor.

Soon after setting off, some five hours after leaving home, it starts to rain. Just spotting at first, it gets more and more intense. There is no alternative but to carry on; there was still 50km to Końskie. When the rain got really heavy, I would shelter for a while. One such stop was in the village of Gowarczów. Below: the hardware store, where you can buy building materials, plumbing and electrical supplies, carpet beaters, artificial roses and bicycle parts.

11:45 am. A guy at the bus shelter is breakfasting on garlicky sausage meat. He reeks of alcohol fumes after a hard night's drinking. Across the street, a group of four men are working out how to buy the alcohol they needed to get them through the day. A tetchy discussion; hands diving into pockets in search of loose change and some tough negotiations ended with their leader announcing in a firm tone: Jest wódka. ('There is vodka').

By the time I'd reached Końskie (pop. 20,000 and falling) just after midday, I'd had enough of the weather; soaked to the skin, my shoes full of water that had wicked down through my sodden socks. Worst of all, the pot-holes in the road were brim-full of rain so as to become invisible. After a couple of metabolism-jarring jolts, I decided it was not worth carrying on, and so I put Plan B into operation.

Rather than heading south for Jędrzejów (another 67km), I turned off towards Końskie's PKS bus station. Making my way there across the town's park, I observed in an archway, three extremely inebriated men manhandling a fourth whose legs were giving way beneath him and who was on the point of passing out despite their aggressive language and actions.

Rural and Small Town Poland is so unlike the Big City Poland so well known to us urban sophisticates as to be quite another country. Different people, different mind-sets and values and life-goals. I shall pursue this thread tomorrow, Poland's National Day.

Above: Końskie's former rail and bus station, now just a bus station. The last train ran from here to Radom on 1 October 2009. You may think the above photo is dull, lacking in interest or spirit of place, in which case my intention to faithfully replicate my emotional response to being here was successful.

Outside this building I picked up a bus for Kielce and the same train I would have caught at Jędrzejów. [Tip for cyclists: Take both wheels off bike, secure them to frame, and there's no problem with getting it into a bus's baggage hold.] 11 zlotys got me to Kielce. From there I bought a ticket to Kraków, which, with the bike, came to a shocking 36.70 zlotys. It was only when I was on the train did the conductor explain to me that the woman in the booking office had mistakenly sold me two singles (one full price, one with excursion discount) to Kraków plus bicycle. The conductor then found a ticketless traveller who boarded the train at a rural halt along the line; rather than sell him a new full-price ticket, he introduced us to one another and passed on his fare (14.70 zlotys, with excursion discount) directly to me! Now there's client-focused thinking - something I completely didn't expect.

And so between home and Końskie I covered 135km, around half the distance between Warsaw and Kraków. I felt no unpleasant side effects (maybe I'd have had aching legs and sore knees had I pressed on to Jędrzejów). On the train I had a half-litre of Coke; on reaching my destination, (the restaurant Nostalgia on ul. Karmelicka 10, Kraków), I downed four large peevoes. Only then, after drinking two and half litres - nearly five pints - of fluid - did I need to go to the toilet - which shows how dehydrated the body becomes as a result of long-distance cycling.

Below: a screenshot showing the route from Warsaw's southern edge to Końskie. Roughly halfway to Kraków. Click to enlarge.


Anonymous said...

The remark on four large peevoes makes me wonder whether the distance between urban sophisticates and small town Poland is indeed so great...

Michael Dembinski said...

Friend, I know not who Thou art, but let me tell you this.

When it comes to the demon drink, I'm no saint (Ash Wednesdays to Easter Sundays excepted), but I ain't no sinner neither.

Last night I disported myself like a gentleman ought to, in front of ladies, and even little children, as did my erudite drinking companions.

Not once did I allow a foul utterance to pass my lips, and at the end of a perfectly sociable evening, I was able to walk back to the railway station without stumbling into flowerbeds, interfering with passers-by, urinating in public or otherwise loudly vocalising coarse remarks.

Drink can either be your servant or your master. I do believe it to be my servant. Sadly, there are many for whom it is the end, not a means to an end.

Anonymous said...

Sounded like quiet the adventure. My girlfriend and I did a bicycle tour south of Krakow that included the Dunjec River Valley a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Poland is a great place to ride.

I'm a little surprised that as an experienced rider you don't use fenders. As a resident of the Pacific NW in America I find them indspensible.