Cardiff West Services, 6:15am on a Saturday morning, Enough said?
Thirty-plus hours by coach from Cardiff to Warsaw is a cross between insanity and SAS endurance training; not the first time we’ve done something similar and, in reality, it gets the job done. You arrive, exhausted, but without the frustration of overnight stops in second-rate motorway “hotels”. And, in fairness to Leger Holidays, they make it as bearable as possible.
The Radisson Blu Sobieski in Warsaw turned out to be pretty good. About 5 minutes by tram to the nearest tourist sight, clean decent sized rooms and a definite 4-star feel to the place.
We arrived about 3pm and took the chance to have a much needed shower before taking our first sortie out into Warsaw.
As with most European cities, the transport system actually works. We bought a 1-day travel pass for next to nothing (£2.60 each) and took a tram to what is known locally as Stalin’s syringe. In communist times, as with so many USSR clients, Stalin built monsterous edifices to proclaim the greatness of his ideals. The shape of this one (still Poland’s highest building) gave it its nickname (after the fall of Communism as the NKVD/KGB had no sense of humour!).
It’s pretty impressive and now houses a Technology Museum, a couple of theatres, restaurants and the tourist information centre. The main attraction (to us, anyway) was the opportunity to visit the 30th floor observation terrace.
Reached by high speed lift (guarded by a formidable elderly matron) it offered some fantastic views of the city.
An evening meal - pretty good regional fayre - and off to bed ready to give the tourist trail a more thorough hammering tomorrow.
All day in Warsaw. We did our usual “independent” thing and made use of all the Warsaw transport network had on offer: trams, buses and trains! Why is it an Eastern European country can integrate its transport systems whilst ours get by on a wing and a prayer? They also run on time!
All you need is the free app, a quick Google to find the location of the place you want, enter the street names and there you have all the possible routes, directions and changes. As the ticket covers all the systems, off you go. Simples!
We spent the morning in the Old Town; it was totally flattened (obliterated actually) by the Nazis as an act of vengeance for the Warsaw Uprising and rebuilt, post-war, to such a standard now to be a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's charming.
We took the opportunity to try pierogi, the ever present Polish snack; something like a fried wonton or small spring roll, filled with anything, usually involving meat, cabbage and/or cheese. From a street stall, these weren’t, in all probability, the Michelin star version, but were really tasty. I’m certainly more than keen to find some more. A great snack and, maybe, a light meal option.
In the afternoon, after some recovery time at the hotel, we ventured to the Royal Gardens. Many cities have parks & gardens in their centres, and these are some of the best we’ve visited.
Interesting old buildings, lakes, gardens, trees; in beautiful warm sunshine this was a super way to find some calm in what is a very busy city.
A busy city, and a noisy one. I’d call the police except it’s them making all the noise! An almost constant background of sirens; there can’t possibly be that many emergencies, so I’m assuming they can’t be bothered with traffic and switch on the “blues & twos” to cut a path through the City Centre.
As a footnote. Polish teenagers and young adults. What an incredibly polite and helpful group. We’ve stopped several to check directions, find a bus stop or check a timetable.
Every single one has gone above and beyond. They've checked information on their phones, pointed the way and one young fella, about 17 years old, insisted on escorting us to a train station as it was a bit difficult to explain the way (giving a commentary on things we passed by, better than most tour guides!) and then took us to the platform.
If this is the next batch of Eastern European immigrants - bring ‘em on!
Radisson Blu once again served a very tasty meal with a local theme (not the usual internationalised menu often offered to groups). We’re leaving at 8:30am tomorrow for Zakopane (respectable), although they want the suitcases by 7:15am. Can’t win ‘em all!
We left Warsaw at 8:30am for the journey down to Zakopane - about 8 hours away. It was amazing how the scenery and architecture changed in the final hour or two.
So far, Poland had been largely flat, and very well looked after. Fields and trees - thousands of trees - filled the countryside. Road were generally straight (sort of French RN’s). And then we reached the Tatra foothills.
Still a beautifully maintained landscape, but far more a cross between Switzerland and North Wales. Some fine highways and some narrow twisting roads winding their way up and down hills. The properties were very reminiscent of Swiss chalet homes.
And all the time, looming ever closer the Tatras. Alp-like and snow covered.
When we reached Zakopane, we realised how high they are, as the landscape changes from foothills to mountains a few miles outside the town.
The Hotel is located right on the main street, ideal for strolling and browsing the very many shops and stalls.
It’s a delightful, but totally one-off, property. Pretty well everything is made of wood - natural pine in the main - carved with (I guess) local embellishments. It’s a rich looking pine, not the plastic version so often seen at home. Zakopane is a ski resort in winter and this is, visually, a large ski lodge.
One feature of the town is the local goat/ewe’s cheese. There are dozens of stalls selling it along the main street. We asked reception about them. Helpfully, she warned that these weren’t truly authentic - cheaper cows’ milk is added. However, one of our driver/couriers is Polish and is going to arrange for the genuine article to be brought to the hotel and if he’s on commission, good luck to him!
The evening meal was very tasty, locally inspired, but a bit unimaginative. They’re probably fed-up (oops, pun) with Brits who want fish & chips, so have tamed the local cuisine. Maybe we’ll take a look at their à la carte menu tomorrow.
All-in-all a very pleasant day.
Kraków today. What a pretty city. Unlike Warsaw, a busy capital, this city has so much to see - “old town” areas, castles, city walls as well as more recent history, such as the Schindler factory.
The first seen, and probably most lasting, image of Kraków will be the horses & carriages. We thought a wedding was coming towards us, but no, it was tourist transport.
We found the “horse rank” and took a tour. Never have we done this before - it was excellent. (Apparently, we are taking another one tomorrow in the mountains. Just like buses - wait for years then two come along together!).
Sunday is the Kraków marathon, so the beautiful Old Market Square which hosts the start and finish lines was somewhat spoilt. Having said that, it was still spectacular - old buildings, pavement cafés, “trendy” shops and churches (Kraków has lots and lots and lots of churches. It was home to Pope John-Paul II).
There’s also a covered arcade and the open square is really beautiful.
There was also time to visit the Castle area, beautifully manicured, a lovely place to sit, relax and enjoy a drink.
We barely touched what Kraków has to offer. We’re so pleased we decided to spend this weekend in Kraków for a second visit, and then fly home, instead of repeating the coach expedition across Europe.
Was today’s outing an excursion or was it a module from the SAS advanced endurance training course?
Now, of course, two other factors came into play: the weather turned cooler and wetter, and it was Friday the thirteenth.
We journeyed in to the Tatra Mountains, which form the Poland/Slovakia border. They rise to around 2500 metres (8000ft) and are quite spectacular. The purpose of the excursion was to visit one of “Poland’s most beautiful lakes” (but more on that later).
The drive up to the mountains was really interesting; small villages, spectacular views and some very extensive lodges, including the one which Lenin frequently used as a holiday home. Clearly, Leninism’s doctrine of equality resembled George Orwell’s: all comrades are equal, but some are more equal than others.
We then arrived at the car park, a generic phrase to describe a very muddy area with a large amount of aggregate scattered around. Here we were expecting to transfer to horse and carriages to travel further. Isn’t it interesting how one simple English word can have so many meanings.
The “carriages” were long carts with hard wooden benches facing outward, accommodating 12 to 15 passengers. The journey (which hadn’t been described, but we assumed might be 10-15 minutes) took around an hour, uphill, up a very steep hill, but at least on metalled roadways. You can become used to the unique aroma of sweaty horse after a while. Fortunately, unlike carriage #2, our horses didn’t suffer from flatulance!
We arrived, numb-butted and bone shaken, at the horse terminal, to be told there was now a short, 1km hike, up an “incline” to reach the lake. Somewhat understated!
It must have been between 1-2 miles up a 20% gradient. At 2000m there is also the issue of oxygen (or lack of it) to be taken into account. Our group was mostly of “a certain age”. I don’t claim to be fit, but by comparison to some… Usain Bolt. I struggled. But at least we were to see “Poland’s most beautiful lake”.
In Wales we would call this a large pond! Northern Italians would think of it as a rain puddle! We have a lake in a park in Cardiff bigger than this (OK this one is 50m deep - so what!). Cardiff doesn’t have snowy mountains… but it does have boats on it!
After a stay of an hour, the reverse journey. Downhill. Better. Not a lot, but better! And it had stopped raining.
The day was rescued by our evening meal. We’ve been eating out all week. Not that the food in the hotel was poor, it was tasty. It was, however, what can I say, “adjusted” to British tastes. We like authentic.
This third restaurant we've tried this week served us with authentic, very very tasty Polish dishes, beer, hot mead and for a cost that wouldn’t buy starters in the UK.
Travel is said to be about experiences. Today proved it.
The day got off to a flying start. The taxi-transfer ordered from our Kraków hotel arrived an hour early; no pressure. He knew he was early and was happy to wait. As the fare was fixed, not a problem.
We were off by 9:10am in a comfortable people-carrier, smug in the thought that most of our co-travellers wouldn’t be leaving for another 4 hours. The rain was of Biblical proportions.
It was a pleasant 2 hour drive through (now) familiar countryside, reaching our hotel just after 11am.
We’d only booked a 3-star hotel as it was just for one night; an hotel which had had rave reviews on Trip Advisor. These were well deserved reviews. Remodelled from a tenement dating to 1871, it's beautifully clean, well appointed, has 2 restaurants, a secluded courtyard and staff who are polite and speak perfect English. It’s location just 5 minutes from the Old Town and 100m from a tram stop is perfect.
Our room, which is a touch larger than a few Hilton 5 stars we've stayed in, has everything you’d need - including complimentary tea, coffee and bottled water and overlooks an enclosed garden. So, there’s no trouser press!!
Being seasoned Polish explorers by now, we thought to visit the “Wieliczka” Salt Mines, just outside the city. Tram to the station, train to the Mines. Couldn’t be simpler. It was simple, except the station is located inside what must be the biggest shopping centre we’ve ever seen (and we’ve seen quite a few). It’s bigger than most towns. Thank goodness it’s well sign-posted throughout.
When we reached the platform, right opposite us was a steam locomotive, with “period” carriages in train. Why, where to? Don’t know. But it was a superb sight to see it pull away a few minutes before our train arrived.
We arrived at our destination without a hitch, a short, well sign-posted stroll to the mines’ entrance and then things took a turn for the ugly.
We were about to learn why Josef Stalin thought of exile to the Salt Mines as the ultimate punishment! The Siberian ones were modelled on these, and the guards have relocated for new employment.
The Biblical rain from Zakopane arrived in Kraków. And we entered a world designed jointly by Danté and Monty Python. Total and utter chaos doesn’t even begin to describe the workings (or more accurately lack of workings) of this place.
Tours run in several languages, most in Polish, next most frequent in English, and then several other different languages. There’s one queue for Polish tours and one for everyone else. The “everyone else” is a very long line.
Not so bad, until you realise that there’s only one window open selling tickets, tours are timed and can have been allocated in advance, on-line and so when you reach the window, you may (or may not) be able to sign up for a tour at the time you had in mind. It could be full already.
This leads to almost every customer, in one of 6 languages, needing to discuss the when, where and how of their purchase.
We’d been in line for about 40 minutes and had advanced about half-way to the window, when a cheerful staff member arrived at the line to tell us that a “technical difficulty” meant that they were unable to sell tickets at the moment and she had no idea when (or even if) it would be rectified. The rain took exception to this and came down even harder.
Most people stayed in line and after about 20 minutes the window reopened.
We reached the window about 1½ hours after joining the queue. We booked for Sunday (tomorrow), being simply too exhausted to spend 2-3 hours touring a mine that includes around 800 steps.
Next we needed refreshments. Fast food, Polish style. Sausages, bread, tea.
They did it again! Queue at one location to place your order, queue at a second location to collect drinks, and at a third for your sausages. Thank the Lord: the tea was good and the sausages delicious (which they should have been, costing just a few zloty less than a meal for 2 in a Zakopane restaurant!). It came to a total of 30zł.
However, the evening meal made up for it. Delicious food in the hotel's very smart restaurant, with beautiful china and smartly dressed, uniformed staff. What I don’t understand is how they make money. Hotels are notorious for overcharging compared to regular restaurants. We had 2 courses each, half a litre of (very good) red wine and bottled water. 67zł or £11.70.
If breakfast tomorrow is anything like dinner tonight…
*Visited the mines Sunday (next day). Some Tips...
If you have the chance to visit these mines, do it, but:
- Buy tickets online, in advance. They’ll only sell online for 3 or more days later than “today".
- Choose an early-ish morning tour. It’s a 30 minute train journey from central Kraków and takes 15 minutes to reach the entry area and “get sorted”.
- Take bottled water with you. It’s very dry air and a long walk, maybe 5km in total.
After all the hassle of yesterday, we set off bright and early to visit the mines. Everything looks better with the sun out and a good night’s sleep, followed by a delicious breakfast, behind you.
Arriving at the mines with a little time in hand, we soon discovered that they’re set in some beautiful parklands and, if you had time to spare, some lovely old architecture and churches to explore in the small town of Wieliczka.
The place was far less crowded - maybe because it was Sunday morning, maybe because the Kraków marathon was running - but certainly a much calmer place. You could have bought a ticket in 5-10 minutes today.
The tour itself was very well run. Quietvox-style receivers and headphones were quickly distributed, the guide spoke perfect English and, apart from being knowledgable, had a great sense of humour.
We descended a few hundred wooden stairs (the first batch of about 800) but the guide quickly pointed out (to everyone’s relief) there was a lift to return to the surface.
The caverns are immense, the carvings incredibly good (considering they were done by miners, not artists) and the scale mind-boggling. None of the caverns are natural caves. They were mined by hand. Some of these excavations took over 30 years to dig!
Everything is salt or wooden supports. The walls and floors look like rock, but they’re salt. Grey with impurities, they look like marble, but it’s all salt!
The “exit” via the lift did follow the organised chaos typical of this venue, however. At the end of the tour, you’re left (around 200m underground) in a very large carvern with gift shops, snack bars, restaurants and an opportunity to buy tickets to a massive underground museum.
You join a queue for the lift. An official collects groups of 20 or so people and leads you off… for another 20 minute walk to the lift - singular - that takes 20 people per journey. We only waited about 5 minutes, but during a very busy time????
The lift doesn’t surface from where you set out, but about 1km from the entrance area in the town. And there’s no clear signage. Fortunately, our homing pidgeon genes worked and we found our way back to the station with only the slightest mis-steps.
We had a great journey back with KLM (as always) and confirmed we’d made the right choice to fly home not take the coach.
We’ve “discovered” Kraków and are certain to return. Lovely city, plenty to see, friendly people, a transport network that actually works and a sense of being safe & welcome.
What a great week.