At one time or another most of Europe has been fought over. In the league table of ‘who’s fought who the most’, Poland must be near the top as it has had scraps with all its neighbours, plus a few others including: the Roman Empire, the Czech’s, German’s and Danes, the Mongol Empire, Lithuania, The Ottoman Empire, Sweden, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Napoleon and of course Hitler…
At the end of the 18th century, things had become so bad, the Polish state, having been partitioned by Austria, Russia and Prussia, was erased from the political map of Europe, [The Second Partition]. At the time Edmund Burke an Irish statesman and member of the British Houses of Parliament said “With respect to us, Poland might be, in fact, considered as “a country in the moon“.
Burke was also responsible for the wise words; “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it“.
Crossing the border was another non-event, our only stress was looking for a fuel stop as once again Margo was running on Baltic gasoil mist. Disappointingly the first garage we spotted diesel (or ON as we came to know it) was 5.44 złoty / litre, so slightly higher than the price in Lithuania we had shunned 50 kms ago. Topping up with fuel we were able to let our nails start to re-grow and continue on to a super stopover campsite for the night in Suwałki.
Bialowieza National Park.
It’s a bit of a trek (220 kms) to Bialowieza National Park, an area that straddles the border with Belarus and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However we thought the idea of visiting an area designated for the protection of its ancient and indeed prehistoric woodland and the last remaining piece of European primeval forest dating back to the Ice Age was definitely worth a look.
This huge forest contains some of the rarest species of fauna and is the only area where the almost extinct European Bison roam free, as well as wolves and red deer.
Lesley was getting very excited about the prospect of a close up encounter with a Bison or to hear the sound of wolves howling at night. Dorothy, Tin man and Scarecrow would no doubt have screamed “Loins and Tigers and bears Oh My”.
In reality the park is so vast the only chance we had of seeing bison or wolves was either to go to one of the ‘enclosed’ (zoo) areas in the park, or as a substitute I suggested we buy a cuddly toy version from one of the tourist outlets (I think it would have made a good centrepiece on Margo’s dash).
Bialowieza is a fair way off the beaten track we were therefore surprised (and if I’m honest, a bit disappointed) to find it offering so much tacky tourist junk. I was left with the impression that without any obvious industry, the local people in this out of the way place see selling the cheap tat to coach parties and day trippers as a way of earning an easy buck.
The 105 square km National Park spans the border with Belarus. We took a bike ride through the forest on a 15 mile circuit, including a long section on a raised walkway where we had to concentrate to avoid falling off into the primeval bog. We saw beehives on trees and heard what sounded like woodpecker but no sizeable wild creatures.
Part of route took us to the border with Belarus, we’d been warned about trying to enter Belarus, but we thought we’d take a look. This is a proper border with lots of fences and gates, no nods and cursory waving you through here. As we cycled up to the gates we were surprised when they started to open and a soldier came out. Not waiting to find out what he would say we turned our bikes around and speedily went back the way we came.
The route from Bialowieza NP to Warsaw passes by the German concentration camp at Treblinka. We decided to overnight in the car park there to be able to look around early the next morning before the coach parties arrived.
The word concentration sounds like you might be forced to think, to focus, but Treblinka wasn’t a place to go to concentrate! It was an extermination camp, built and operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II. The camp operated between 23rd July 1942 and 19th October 1943 as part of Operation Reinhard, the deadliest phase of the Final Solution.
During this time, it is estimated that between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were killed in its gas chambers, along with 2,000 Romani people. More Jews were killed at Treblinka than at any other Nazi extermination camp, apart from Auschwitz-Birkenau where 1.1 million were murdered.
It is difficult to portray in words and pictures a true sense of this place. The placing of stones to represent each one of those killed helps.
I stood by one stone in a group of 12 other stones and wondered what relationship it had with the others nearby. Were they family, parents, wives, children, or neighbours or just another poor sole who’d sat next to each other in the transport. What would they have known about their fate, I tried to imagine how would they have comforted one another. What in their last moments were they thinking or feeling?
Above all other thoughts, I could not stop thinking – How could anyone do this to another human being.
When looking for a place to park in a large city there’s usually a compromise to be had. The key priorities are convenience to the places of interest, security (do we feel safe), is it legal, and in a busy city – how noisy is it going to be at night?
Caravaningu “Szerokiej Drog, a Hymer and Adria dealer, allows motorhomes to park on their forecourt,. It was also on a bus/tram route into the city and included EHU, fresh water, a 24 hour security guard and all for 50 złoty (£10) – sounded perfect. Except bright and early at 7am the building works started next door, literally 10m from Margo, with tipper trucks, diggers and dumpers all vying to make the loudest noise (they’d obviously gone home when we’d arrived).
The Warsaw Uprising
Was a major World War II operation, late in the war in the summer of 1944, by the Polish Home Army (underground resistance movement), to liberate Warsaw from German occupation. The uprising was timed to coincide with the retreat of the German forces from Poland ahead of the Soviet advance.
While approaching the eastern suburbs of the city, the Russian Red Army inexplicably halted temporarily its combat operations, enabling the Germans to regroup and defeat the ill equipped Home Army and to destroy the city of Warsaw in retaliation. The Uprising was fought for 63 days with little outside support. It was the single largest military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II.
Altogether, the Polish losses during the uprising included 150,000 civilian dead and about 20,000 Home Army casualties. The German forces lost about 10,000. The remaining civilian population of 650,000 was deported to a camp south of Warsaw.
During the next three months, the Germans proceeded to demolish much of what was left of the city. When the Soviet troops “liberated” Warsaw in January 1945, Poland’s capital was a vast desert of hollow-shelled buildings and rubble.
If you would like to read the full article click this link: Remembering the Warsaw Uprising
The city today is an attractive place for tourists, Warsaw Old Town has been progressively rebuilt since the second world war, the Royal Castle above was re-constructed from 1971 – 1984. It must have been mammoth task to regain its original 17th century appearance. From the untrained eye it looks authentic and in 1980, the castle and surrounding Old Town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We sat in the corner of Vege Miasto, a small vegan restaurant and studied the menu. A difficult choice was eventually made and I went for Green Heaven – a spinach and buckwheat pancake filled with veggies ricotta made from cashew, almonds and tofu served with a chive and spinach sauce, which tasted surprisingly delicious for something with so much spinach!
Lesley was extremely pleased with her choice of spicy veg tortilla made from kidney beans, sweet corn, red peppers, carrot and pineapple served with guacamole.
The array of cakes was also dazzling, so even though quite full we thought it would be rude not to sample. Lesley wanted something chocolatey (there’s a surprise) so I selected appropriately but it turned out to be surprisingly fruity, light and delicious with a wholesome raw cacao and date base. All very, very yummy
The French would say ‘Chaud Pain‘ is warm bread, but Frederic Chopin is Poland’s most famous composer and pianist, born in 1810 and grew up in Warsaw. The city is obviously very proud of his legacy, there’s a museum dedicated to him and his music and multiple venues promoting Chopin concerts.
The city has devised one interesting way to bring Chopin to the people, with fifteen musical benches placed at key sites connected with his life. These polished black stone benches, feature a button which unleashes a thirty second clip of a Chopin sonata, nocturne or a waltz.
It was like a treasure hunt finding the benches, even if some of them were a bit too wet to sit on. We also discovered someone asleep on a bench but we don’t think it was Chopin.
Outside the old town the city of Warsaw is a bustling metropolis with Presidential Palace, museums, galleries, parks the Stadion Narodowy (Poland’s National Stadium), sadly we didn’t have enough time to see it all.
By the time we got to ‘Agrotouristik Camping‘ camp site near Elk we were burnt out by foolishly trying to see too much and do too many things. Like Monty Python’s Mr Creosote we couldn’t take more new stuff on board, we needed some down time.
Run by the very charming Heinz and his wife Joanna this for us was (like the name of my vegan lunch) ‘Green Heaven‘. With only 3 other vans on this well organised spacious site, we just dropped anchor and chilled. Each night Heinz and his grandson would go around lighting candles dotted around the field and bring us a wheelbarrow of fresh firewood for the fire-pit.
Edmund Burke, is also famous for publishing amongst other things; “The Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful“. Sitting watching the flickering flames on the fire this place felt both sublime and beautiful.
Dave & Lesley