Exploring Europe Part 2: Poland and Slovakia

After spending a week travelling around Belgium, Germany and Czech Republic, Next up on Richard and Hong's European tour was Poland... 
3rd June - Poland

After visiting the St Barbra Cathedral, we drove from Kutna Hora to the villages in Poland. Czech drivers are quite crazy, the roads are narrow but not crowded. We found a very clean campsite, only 5 camper vans, which was 30 minutes from the Czech border.

We had a nice dinner - I am finding it so easy to prepare dinner in the van, we washed all our clothes and had a long hot shower.

4th June - Cracow, Poland

We got up at 7:30am and left the campsite at 9am to drive 4 hours to Cracow in Poland. At the beginning it was slow due to going through many small villages with twisted turns. Then onto the highway and we made better time. We got some fresh strawberries along the road at a stand. They did not speak English and were very nice and friendly to us. 

We got to Cracow at 2:30pm and pitched up at a campsite by the river near the center of the city. We biked into the centre alongside the river, very nice, about 2 miles. We went to Wawel Castle first and got tickets for the tower and Cathedral. The Cathedral is so grand, I think it can be compared with Rome’s St. Peters. Rich was a little in need of a rest, so we took a break with coffee and ice cream. He took a quick nap! The rain then started. In between the stop of the rain, we biked into the town center, the Cloth Hall - there is the concert going on. We went to St Mary’s Cathedral.

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Cycling along the river in Cracow

June 5, 2017 - Cracow, Poland

We toured the city of Cracow, but as today is Monday, most museums are closed. I got meat and bread for our lunch in a local store whilst Rich looked after the bikes. It was quite cheap. We biked to the river and sat on the bank for our lunch. Rich said it was a beautiful tasty lunch. After, we biked around the town centre, the old Jewish quarter and the green park that completely surrounds Cracow old centrum. We visited many churches, which are absolutely amazing, on a grand scale. Significant are the wood carvings, gold inlaid figures and confession boxes. Some churches are painted and some have cloths covering the walls. Lots of people are jogging, cycling, and walking around the parks and children are playing. We had our third “dinner out” on our trip in the town centre.

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Pub with old school desks - Rich and I both remember ink wells from our childhoods in England and China

June 6, 2017 - Cracow, Poland

Today we got up at 7am. We had a quick breakfast, packed up and left at 8am for Schindler's Factory, just outside the town centre. This is the man who rescued so many Jews during the Second World War. We had already bought our tickets. It was rush hour and we were moving slower than a walker. We wished we had biked along the river which would have been much faster.

We then drove about 20 minutes to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. At the beginning, we walked down 54 layers on zigzag wooden staircases - 64m deep in the ground. Then we went through about 22 salt-walled and floored rooms. We only saw about 1% of total rooms in the whole mine. The greatest room is a grand cathedral with salt sculptures and salt chandeliers. This room is used for concerts and Sunday services. There is also a grand salt lake and the rooms are either really tall or really wide. It was a two hour tour on foot. We licked the salt walls; saw all the crystal salt and beautiful salt pavements.

We had our lunch in one of the cafeterias with walls and floors of salt. We recommend visiting the museum. The museum tour brings you through the work route to find the machinery, the history and more surprise rooms. We enjoyed our tours so much.

After the Salt Mine tours, we drove toward Slovakia. It does not seem far but the road bent so much and seemed to take so long to get to the border. We tried to find a Polish campsite but could not find one before the border. Finally we drove over the border to Slovakia. The mountain view was so pretty - Rich said that they were the Tatra mountains. We drove to Bardejov and still could not find a campsite or to buy vignette (toll sticker needed to drive in Slovakia). There were no tourists in this part of the mountains. The gas station owner kindly let us park our van on the lawn of his gas station overnight. We went to Tesco to get some food shopping and washed up there. Then we returned to the service station for to set up the campervan, have dinner and sleep. I cooked breaded chicken for Rich and salad for myself.

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A corridor in the salt mine

7th June - Bardejov, Slovakia

We were woken up early by people coming for gas. Rich said “thank you and goodbye” to the gas station owner for his kindness. We drove to Tesco for a morning wash. Then we had our breakfast in the coffee shop.

We parked our car near the church for two hours - for just 1euro - and cycled into Bardejov centre. It was early morning - so quiet and peaceful. We could not believe how beautiful a town it was without tourists. We could only see some local people cleaning the street. We went to the town museum first, a very nice exhibition about things from the local churches. The girl at the visitors centre told us about an open-air museum not far away with traditional Slovak wooden churches.

We went to the town centre Cathedral first, which has all trifold centerpieces. We also climbed to the bell tower; the bells are nicer than we saw in Krakow St. Mary. The Bardejov had nice city walls with watchtowers that are very well kept. We wished we had time to stay longer!

We drove to the spa town which we learnt about from the lady at the Bardejov visitor information office. We didn't realize at first that the town cannot be accessed by car. But we had our bikes, and we did what we often did, left our campervan outside the town and biked in.

The open-air museum was very nice with historic buildings from nearby towns. Two wooden churches go back to 1750 with beautiful onion shaped tops. We called them “onion rings!” They are very special types which can only be seen in this area and in nearby Poland. I rang the church bells! Rich said he did not think we were supposed to ring the church bells and that everyone around will now have the wrong time and day of the week! Everyone’s calendars and clocks are probably still wrong!

We biked around the town and found some spring heads. It tasted like the water in Karlovy Vary - fizzy water, delicious. The old hotel is called Elizabeth because the Austrian Sissy came here before. We had a good time biking around the town.

We then drove about an hour to Spis castle which is beautifully built, picturesque in a beautiful high-up position. We hiked to the top of the tower - not easy but the view is fantastic.

Later we tried to drive to the Levoca camping site but police blocked all the roads in and out of town. There was an international bike race in the town. We ate our dinner at our table in the van (it's so nice to have a table in the van), while waiting for the road to be reopened. We got to Levoca campsite at 8pm. There were only 4 cars on the site. It was very quiet, near a little pond. We had a good shower tonight.

P.S. I cleaned the pots and pans in Spis castle bathroom as well as dirty clothes today. Later a camper told us we can park anywhere in Slovakia after 5pm overnight, so long as you’re not causing any blockage. The Spis castle is a popular place to stay overnight, as it is high up and has beautiful sunrises.

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Bardejov

8th June - Lavoca, Vlkolinec & Trencin, Slovakia

We finished our breakfast (as always with tasty fresh bread) and set for downtown Lavoca. At 9am, police have already controlled the traffic, we are lucky to find a parking spot quickly. The bike event was on again today. We saw many of the country’s professional cyclists with their support buses/vans, even from Russia. We visited two museums, got a dollar each magnets and left at 12, just before the bike event started. Lavoca is UNESCO, but not as good as Bardejov. “Why are there so many UNESCO places?”, I asked. Rich said that our Horsham flat and nearby Tesco will be UNESCO by the time we get home!

We drove about an hour and a half to a folk village, called Vlkolinec, which is located in the mountains. The houses are very old; villagers put a hut in front of the village and ask for money, 3 euro for two of us and 1 euro for pictures. But it is well worth it. The village is lived-in and is still in development. The colors of the houses are bright. The forest around supplies all the building materials. The roofs are traditional wooden shingles, 6x2 foot, wedged at one side and notched at the other. After years of sun and rain they become black in color. We bought two walking sticks, which are now in our Horsham flat, beautifully hand-made. The traditional Slovakian wooden churches were built this way. The road towards this village is very hard to drive, narrow, twisted and bumpy. But a tour bus has been driven in, even though it could not get all the way to the village. We met a group of grade schoolers at the front of the village, who took that tour bus. They had to hike a mile over the hill to reach the village. I took some pictures for them, of the students and teachers. The village is very quiet with no more than 20 visitors. The road into the village is so quiet that we sat on a bench in the middle of the road in the village, facing the mountain, green filled in the eyes and fresh in the breath, it is heaven. I loved the place, its peacefulness and beauty in the tranquil mountains.

The village of Vlkolinec in the Carpathian Mountains. I took a photo of the middle schoolers, visiting the village. They all posed in the middle of the road, getting out of the way of an occasional car.

Later Rich drove to Trencin, which gets its name from the Trencin Castle which our campsite is right under. Lots of bikers were biking along the river. People are nice, most are local. We set the camper roof up, plugged the van in, and biked into the town.

The bike trail is along the river, there are two downtowns; one is quiet and closed at 6pm, the other is under renovation among cobbled old streets. The old centre is just below the castle. The houses are pretty and old. A few people sat outside for dinner, very peaceful. We biked/pushed the bikes up to the viewpoint at the castle. Later we stopped at a cyclist bar along the river. We had local draft beer at 1.25euro, the cheapest one in our trip. Drinking beer makes you feel good when you are tired and thirsty!

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We bought this mascot. Is it a sheep, maybe a monkey? It has sheep feet but a monkey’s face. It opens into a pillow. It went everywhere with us, now lives in our New Jersey home.