Once on the road again, after our sojourn in Warsaw, we noticed how quickly the nights were drawing in. It was getting dark before 6 p.m. and we realised that we had to begin looking for a place to stop around 4:30. It all rather limits how much you can do in a day. In addition, open campsites were few and far between. We headed down the Vistula to the area around Lublin, aiming first for the little historic town of Kazimierz Dolny and spent our first two nights wild camped in separate spots beside the river. Both of these were by disused ferry landings, which make excellent overnight spots where you are left undisturbed by the occasional fisherman, who pays little attention to an unexpected motorhome. Our third night out from Warsaw was spent by a lakeside marina on the outskirts of Lublin, again amongst more fishermen, and occasional Saturday night romantics in their cars. We slept comfortably at all three places.
Something about Kazimierz Dolny put us in mind of Spain or Portugal. It might have been the large Baroque church overlooking the town. It might have been the large central square surrounded by white buildings, or the arches on their arcades, but it was most likely the intricate carvings on the front of the top storeys. The buildings were built by wealthy merchants some time in the 15th and 16th centuries in the Lublin Renaissance style – characterised by rich ornamentation on the roofline. It suddenly struck us that it was this which was imitated by Soviet architects in some of the decoration on the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, under strict instruction, as they were, to take something from local styles. We had visited this pretty museum town twenty years ago, but had only the vaguest memory of it, and certainly couldn’t recall a place so obviously frequented by tourist groups, who were still arriving as we left at 4 p.m.
Lublin, our next stop, was a place we had strong recollections of as having a very quiet old walled town at its centre, filled with restored, but fairly lifeless, tall, stone merchants’ houses. The houses are still there, but the old town is now a busy, bustling location filled with businesses aimed at the thriving tourist trade – restaurants, cafes and chic little shops. There’s still a great deal of restoration work going on, with many houses getting facelifts to create frontages which are beautifully decorated, but there are also houses which remain untouched by anything other than time. It all made for pleasant wanderings, which took us into a few of the Baroque churches and under arches to glimpse some of the courtyards of old tenement houses. The rest of the town, outside the walled centre, had changed a great deal too, with main thoroughfares now pedestrianised and lined with a range of modern shop frontages. What we recalled as a Russian market, where traders from across the then Soviet border used to sell everything and anything, but mostly tat, from the backs of their Ladas and Volgas, is now a huge market selling all manner of goods. We couldn’t resist buying too much great smoked and marinated fish. While I (Lesley) spent an hour in the van, watching at least three different shivering brides pose on the castle steps with their new husbands, Rob went on his own mini-wander. He was in search of a park where in 1990 there had been a Russian tank on a plinth – a monument to the Soviet army – on the side of which someone had painted “go home”. He found the place – now called Plac Litewski (Lithuania Place). Unsurprisingly the tank has been replaced and a statue of Marshal Pilsudski, the head of independent Poland in the 1920s, stands on what could be the same, recycled, plinth.
The Jews are the great missing presence in Poland, as in much of eastern Europe, and there were large Jewish populations in many towns in this area from the Middle Ages onwards. In Lublin, and other places around here, there would have been synagogues, schools, and all the trappings of normal life, but this world disappeared forever between 1940 and 1944. For many years you would have been hard pressed to find traces of the Jews having been here, but several towns we visited have now begun to promote the Jewish aspects of their history, with walking trails around what is left. A great deal of what there is just leaves you feeling sad, such as the Holocaust memorial outside Kazimierz Dolny. It was made from Jewish gravestones, which had been removed from the cemetery there by order of the Nazi occupiers, and used to pave roads created in the town by forced Jewish labour.
On the south-eastern margins of Lublin is a place that by-passes sad and leaves you feeling raw with emotion. The concentration camp of Majdanek held prisoners from just about every country in Europe, but most of its inmates were Polish political prisoners, Soviet prisoners of war, and Jews from Warsaw. The purpose of the camp was to provide a workforce to be used in the service of the German occupying powers. Majdanek was also to serve as an extermination centre, killing anyone too old, young, weak or sick to take part in the forced labour, as well as killing Jews who were overspill from the Operation Reinhard killing centres of Bełżec, Sobibor and Treblinka. It is a shocking place on all sorts of levels and I (Lesley) find it difficult to quite put into words the feelings brought about by a visit there. One aspect which struck me was how callously business-like and efficiently organised the whole affair was, involving the collection, valuation and recycling of every aspect of a prisoner – valuables, clothing, shoes, personal property, hair and, ultimately, bodies. We had visited before, twenty years ago, and the displays are more informative now, being in English as well as Polish, but the exhibits speak for themselves. The gas chambers moved me to tears as did the room full of thousands of pairs of confiscated shoes – all shapes, sizes and styles, which were once worn by some of the 78,000 human beings who died of sickness or starvation or were murdered there.
Zamość – the Portmeirion of Poland. OK, that’s not how the tourist brochures describe it, but the parallels are there – a planned Italian-style town built from scratch in far-away northern lands by men of wealth and vision. Unlike Portmeirion however, Zamość is an important regional town, and goes back to 1580 when the local ruler, Jan Zamoyski, hired the Paduan architect, Bernado Morando, to plan and build a new town in the Italian Renaissance style of the time. The result was a grid of streets surrounding a set-piece main square, where an impressive semi-circular marble staircase takes you up to the first floor of the ornate town hall. There are a few other squares in Zamość, mostly in varying states of renovation, and the whole place creates a very fine impression. Massive renovations seem to have taken place in the 1950s, but at present a great deal of money is again being spent on the town and it will no doubt look even better in years to come. Zamość is a university town and has a great many bookshops. I think we visited all of them looking for the third book in a trilogy I (Lesley) had. Near the market is an English language bookshop, which does sell novels in English. If you are ever in Zamość and need something to read – all the classics can be found there, but alas, nothing recent. One publication we would have liked to find was advertised by the tourist office. Apparently one of the Zamość’s claims to fame is that it is the only town to produce a fictionalised guidebook for children. We would have liked to have seen “Dusiek and Bajdek are looking for an invisible ideal town”!
The campsite at Zamość is well positioned, just a short walk from the town’s fortifications and historic centre. The reception was camouflaged as a Chinese restaurant, though we doubted the authenticity of the cuisine as we saw no-one who looked remotely oriental coming or going from the place. The campsite advertises itself as having a sauna and jacuzzi, which it may well do, it certainly had a large indoor tennis court and a covered outdoor seating area, with BBQ ovens. It is probably very busy in the summer, but after a night of heavy rain it just looked sodden and gloomy. Still, this did not stop a party of junior school children arriving at about 9 a.m. for their day trip to, well, to just the campsite really, as they stayed all morning, playing on the worn out roundabouts and damp slides and enjoying barbequed sausages at about half past ten. The wet picnic seemed an odd sort of school trip, but at least they were not forced to complete worksheets about the history and architecture of Zamość – ex-colleagues take note!
We stayed for two nights in Zamość and then continued south on Tuesday 26th October, heading for the border with Slovakia. At first the land was flat, and we passed through the thick woods of the Roztoczański national park, and more similar countryside beyond its borders. That night we stopped in a small forest clearing near Sieniawa beside the most rutted road we had driven on for a long time.
A night in the wet woods (well, next morning)
We started to pass signs to wooden churches in some of the small villages and went to investigate. Some were tiny but others, such as in Cewków, had large onion domes on the spires. They had all without exception belonged formerly to the Uniate church, but been abandoned around 1947. The Uniates, also known as Greek Catholics, follow the Orthodox rites – hence ‘Greek’ – but recognise the primacy of the Pope. This situation came about in the 17th century, when for reasons of pragmatism, certain Orthodox congregations on the borders of the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian empire agreed to come into the Catholic fold, but the quid-pro-quo was that they kept their own traditions and forms of worship. The Uniates in south-east Poland generally spoke a form of Ukrainian, and this was to seal their fate in the wake of the Second World War. After the expulsion of the Nazis in 1944, many local Ukrainians didn’t see why they should remain part of a Polish state when the borders were being redrawn, and a guerrilla campaign ensued. Communist Poland responded in 1947 by burning the Ukrainian villages of the far south-east, and expelling the populations to far corners of the new Poland, hence the abandonment of the churches. Some were taken over by Roman Catholic congregations, others simply fell into disuse, and yet others were torn down along with their villages. There is now a reawakening of interest in this part of Poland’s heritage, but curiously few information plaques explain quite why they changed hands in 1947.
Wooden churches near Sieniawa : Moszczanica and Cewków
The Slovakian border runs along a branch of the Carpathian Mountains, known in these parts as the Beskidy. After Sieniawa and Przeworsk the land began to rise until we were driving through proper hills, the highest since Norway. The weather took a turn for the better, and the villages, fields and woods looked magnificent in the afternoon sun. We passed many one-storey wooden houses not much different from those in Lithuania, or Estonia, or even Finland. The villages were long but just one-house deep, with fields ploughed in long thin strips, separated by knee-height hedges. At sundown on Wednesday we reached Komańcza, a small logging town almost on the border, and parked up in a side valley below a nunnery, where the steep slopes gave us some protection from the -6°C overnight temperatures. Despite our concerns about refilling our gas bottles, the gas heating came on for a while that evening. As it was, the water tanks froze, but we were warm in bed with some new blankets we bought for this kind of occasion. The cold seeps through the floor in this van. It has forced Rob to buy a pair of slippers and at these low temperatures it became too cold for Charlie dog to sleep comfortably on the floor in his lair under our bed. He couldn’t settle and kept jumping on the bed and shivering. However, once we put his cushion down there he seemed content and didn’t emerge again until first light when he did his usual leap onto the bed to torment us for a few minutes.
Overnighting at Komańcza
On Thursday we followed the road from Komańcza to the Dukla pass, parallel to the Slovakian border. It was a fine, sunny day, with wonderful views along the broad pastoral valleys and wooded ridges of the Beskidy hills. We passed through one small village after another and a number of wooden churches. Agriculture around here looked less modernised than in other areas, and we saw a handful of horse-carts, as well as a man feeding his pig in the barn end of one of the long, low wooden farmhouses, where the family quarters lay across the corridor.
Wooden churches at Komańcza and Wisłok Wielki
In just about every town and village we passed through the local cemetery had become a hive of industry in preparation for “the day of the dead”. No, it’s not some zombie film. In these parts, as in many other Catholic countries, November 1st, or All Saints Day, followed on the 2nd by All Souls Day, is celebrated with visits to the graves of dead relatives, which have to be spruced up and ready. So much tidying has been going on - marble tombstones have been scrubbed and polished until they positively shine, and every market has stalls selling glass lamps and flower arrangements. We plan to be out and about on Hallowe’en, not to trick or treat, but to see all those lamps lit – assuming Slovakia is keeping up much the same traditions as Poland.
We found a farm campsite at Tyława that was open, and could give us electricity, if not running water which was off for the winter. Needless to say, we were on our own here though Charlie dog found a couple of small friends among the little farm dogs which roamed freely around the site. An open campsite in a good location is now such a prized find that we decided to stay for a second day, and I (Rob) made the best of the good weather and beautiful scenery by going off on an 80km bike ride, including a little excursion into Slovakia before we moved on for real on the Saturday.
Charlie & dog friends