Road Trip to Poland

Sept 6, 2019

Whirlwind road trip is done!!  I may add information to this post over many days because there is so much to review, but it was a great trip up until I returned the car to Avis … they decided to be idiots but I will come back to that.

Tivat to Budapest

The first part of the journey was travelling to Warsaw.   Now the easy thing to do is to jump on a plane (which from Tivat isn’t really that easy, they would have flown me to Paris or Brussels to get me to Poland ??).   Anyway, I wanted to see the various bits of this part of the world.

So I decided to go through the middle of Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina, and it was a very slow drive on single lane roads, but was quite beautiful.  I couldn’t take a lot of photos because there was nowhere to stop many times and at 40-60kph, I was getting behind schedule.

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A reservoir in Montenegro. (^^^)

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A lake (perhaps a reservoir) in Montenegro again (^^^^)

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The interior of Montenegro is full of beautiful scenery like this. The drive is harsh, however.

One of my favourite bits was driving through a valley in the North of Montenegro.   I don’t know what it is actually called, but many of these photos are from this area.   What I didn’t get were pictures of the tunnels along the waterway on E762 roadway.  I drove through about 50 tunnels along the water (the road is cut from the walls of the valley), and it was a bit un-nerving with various rockslides, but also quite scenic and a challenging drive.  Here it is on a map:

Image 2019-09-06 at 3.05 PM You can make that a bit bigger if you click on it, but it is just a spectacular drive, despite dangers from falling rock (one rock slide had wiped out the road and they built a new road around the rock slide!!) and somewhat crazy drivers.

Well, I have written more about this part of the trip, so I will let the rest go for now.  I may add more later!  This day was the first time I have ever had my car searched at a border.  As well, when I entered Hungary there were long, long tunnels, but on a moonless night I could see stars, but not what the tunnels were for . . . need to use google to figure that one out.

I did stop to look up at the stars somewhere in southern Hungary (four shooting stars, no satellites would come into focus though), and it was beautiful without the moon.

All of that slow driving and failure to stop for the night in Sarajevo meant an arrival in Budapest around 1:30am and then it took three stops at various hotels to find a room.   I finally crawled into bed around 2:30 am.

Of course when I woke up I didn’t have any time for sight seeing.  Instead I made a decision to drive so that I could make it through the scenic parts of Slovakia and Poland before dark!

Budapest to Warsaw

Beautiful landscape and a small mountain range to cross.  This was a nice drive, unfortunately I kept moving and didn’t take any good pictures so that I could see as much as possible in the daylight and get to Warsaw for the night.

A few minor bullet points

  • Traffic in Budapest was difficult, but I wasn’t trying for the fastest route.   The city itself is nicely laid out for cycling and that is a huge plus.  I will go back there as a tourist and walk around, take the boat tour, ride a bike, ride the trams, etc.   Nice city by the looks of it.
  • There were many nice bridges in Hungary, Slovakia (and again in Poland and the Czech Republic).  They don’t seem to follow the North American standard of putting a pile of cement in the middle of the landscape (most of the time) and instead have interesting suspension designs, etc.   Don’t know what this does for maintenance/quality, but it is far more appealing to look at.
  • The landscape turns to fields akin to Southern Ontario or North Eastern USA.   Not the huge fields of western provinces/states, more 20-100 acre plots with a wide variety of crops.  Sometimes very pretty.
  • Moving North, on the border of Slovakia and through much of Slovakia, there is a mountain range.   A bit difficult to drive in places, but very scenic.  Of note were the bicycle trails along the route in Slovakia.  May be a great place to go back and have a nice, safe, and scenic bike tour.
  • I stopped on the outskirts of Krakow to get a SIM card for my phone (been two days without service . . . .aaargh!). Easy as pie.  I was warned via the internet that the Polish SIM cards were inexpensive but wouldn’t work in other EU countries.   Back to that later.
  • The run from Krakow to Warsaw was one of the strangest driving experiences I have had in a while.   After descending the core of the mountain range, the road undulates over about 100km, and becomes two lanes going 100 or 120kph.  Essentially a major highway.  But then they would have signs every 50 feet or so, to slow to 100, 80, 50 and I am thinking what for?   By the second one I realized these are crosswalks in the middle of the highway.   Cars were flying past me doing 150 or more and slowing down was not on their minds.   There were 3 dozen or more of these before I reached Warsaw.   Crazy.
  • Warsaw was pretty tightly shut down for the arrival of politicians from all over the world.   Getting to my hotel was a bit frustrating but I got in around 11pm if I recall.

Warsaw

Jinhee arrived in Warsaw on Saturday morning (August 31st) and I picked her up at the airport.   During my drive to the airport the route was lined with police about every 200 feet.   I thought ‘the president isn’t coming anymore, maybe there is a marathon or something?!’.   Well, I didn’t realize at the time that dozens of other world leaders did show up, including VP Pence.

In any case, Saturday was spent discovering the city of Warsaw under heavy, heavy (did I say heavy yet?) police presence.

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Don’t know who is in this car, but the guards are really serious.  Moved some old Asian ladies out of the way rather forcefully, and look at the guy in the passenger seat looking at me!!
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Not to worry, they have horses for backup.   And they are carrying big spears so bad guys will definitely not be able to get away.

To be sure, Warsaw has a lot of nice palaces, but we didn’t go into any of them, we spent the time walking through the city centre and the jewish quarter of the old city and enjoying the outdoors.

This was followed by a mediocre meal of authentic Polish Perogies.   The hotel (a Westin mind you) suggested a very popular Polish Perogie restaurant with horrible service modestly good food and way too busy to really enjoy.   We did our best and the Perogies were not bad, but nothing you couldn’t get in Toronto.

Sunday was a far better adventure.   On Sunday, our only real objective was a free concert on the Royal grounds.   Of course Poland is no longer a monarchy but the grounds are a park and quite beautiful.

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Every Sunday they bring in Chopin pianists for two free concerts in the park.

First stop, the free Chopin concert in the park.   They have two free concerts on Sundays in the summer and this isn’t mediocre piano playing, this guy was really good.   I can’t say that I recognized the music (and I don’t recall the pianists name, but it was Hungarian and about 10 syllables long).

What a pleasant way to spend an hour or so on Sunday.

Jinhee was a little baffled though because about 20% of people were sitting on the grass, and 20% in folding chairs that all looked the same.  (The rest were on seating around the park ‘centre’).  We didn’t see where these chairs came from and we sat on the ground but in the shade.  Hurrummmph.

After the concert, we found some food in the shade (again) and decided to walk around and see some of the sites.   There is a beautiful orangerie (I don’t even know what that is) and the park is very large and nicely maintained.    Oh to be royalty.

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A little farther along, we found some of those chairs . . . just laying about . . . they seem to be a marketing tool and just hanging about in the park.   Gotta relax in the shade (again) for a while just to say we found the chairs!

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Hey, I found a chair!!

All of this led to running the gauntlet of military and police to get to dinner (literally in some areas) but we have better pictures because the official photographer was now fully engaged in the events.

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Jinhee was impressed with the honour guard who didn’t seem to flinch
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The streets appeared to be empty.   Because the police shut everything down!
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This Royal Palace grounds opened moments after I snapped this (only three police in front here). There were hundreds of tourists in that space 30 minutes later.

This whole area must have been shut down for the politicians because many of the restaurants were closed and the area was virtually empty, but we found a very scenic restaurant to eat dinner (see the Featured Image) and there were only five tables seated,  making for a very quiet dinner with great service.

  • It is worth noting that the President of Germany officially apologized for the suffering inflicted on Poland and the rest of Europe during the second world war during this visit.
  • President Trump did not attend because he had to get back to Florida to put in two rounds of golf and draw Alabama on the Hurricane map with a black Sharpie.   He sent VP Pence instead.

Krakow

When doing research, Jinhee found that Krakow was supposed to be nicer than Warsaw as a tourist.  Warsaw was fine,  yet Krakow may be a ‘warmer’ place.  It is hard to judge because of the police presence in Warsaw (I can’t say this enough, thousands of military and police, helicopter flyovers every 15-20 minutes, sirens blaring, etc.).

We started our visit with a drive to Auschwitz early on Monday morning to visit this dark and foreboding place.  I have read a lot about Auschwitz over my life and so wasn’t really surprised by any of this, but a few things stand out.

  1. There were a lot of concentration camps used during the second world war.
  2. Auschwitz was not designed to house people, it was designed, specifically to kill people.   Auschwitz-Birkenau had room for 15,000 people, and they moved (don’t remember the number) 10’s of thousands to the camp monthly during 1943-44.   People who entered the camp died of starvation, illness or the vast majority, in the gas chambers.
  3. Note the first ovens picture below.  If I recall the tour, these could dispose of about 7,000 bodies a month.   The ovens at Birkenau were capable of disposing of 20,000 bodies a month I believe.   (See point 5, they focused on the efficiency of death and disposition.)
  4. I think our guide said that nobody lived for more than one year in the camp.   Early arrivals all had three photos taken (by 1943 they stopped).   They have hundreds of those photos on the walls and I looked at arrival and death dates for a couple dozen.   Women lasted longer than men, and most were dead within four months of arrival.
  5. One of the key outcomes of this camp was learning how to kill people faster.   It was used to improve efficiency of killing people en masse.
  6. Fun fact, Auschwitz was the German name for the camp which is located in Oswiecim, the first part of the name in Polish, sounds like Auschwitz.

Near the end of the Auschwitz tour, the rain came pouring down, hard and so we didn’t go to Birkenau.  We were soaked and decided to get to our hotel in Krakow and lift the mood a bit.

Here are a few photos from before the rain.

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Looking back from inside the entry gate.  Guard tower on the right, bomb shelters ahead and left.

 

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Inside the compound/courtyard
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The ‘first’ ovens, capable of disposing of about 7,000 bodies a month

Krakow is definitely a nice place.   We stayed at a boutique hotel on the outskirts of the old town.  The one thing we didn’t do in Krakow was eat out. We ate in the hotel restaurant both evenings.  The wine was cheap and the food was good, so we stayed close.

Here are some shots of the city.

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Lots (and lots) of churches to visit
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Beautiful courtyard.  I don’t even remember what building this was?
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At the gates to the old city
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The centre of town
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Path around the city walls
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A concert in a church . . . amazing acoustics

While strolling the streets of Krakow, we walked into this church and noted that they were having a concert in the evening.   Given the success we had with the free concert in Warsaw, we decided that this one made sense as well despite being about C$20 each. [Cracow Chamber Orchestra of Saint Maurice]

We arrived a bit early, sat in pretty good seats (okay, not the best, but pretty good), and then listened to some classics played by a five person chamber orchestra.  A separate pianist played some nice pieces as well.   Bach, Vivaldi, Pachelbel, Chopin, Straus and Mozart … all well played, perhaps not the best, but definitely worth coming out for.

I took away two things.   The first is that we pay a ridiculous amount of money to go see concerts at the TSO, and usually there is one good piece and the prior conductor put in two other pieces that sounded more like cat scratching.   We stopped going.  I don’t pay a ridiculously large amount of money to listen to unknown artists works, particularly when they are chaotic and unpleasant (my experience, agreed).   I pay to see great works played extremely well.  I would fly back to Krakow and pay C$20 for these folks to play classics really well and take the vacation for free.   I think we may do more of that.

The second thing is the acoustics.   The church was a wonderful place to listen to this music, and the only one that sounded bad was a piano piece (Wieniawski?) that was heavy on bass and the walls weren’t able to absorb the sound so it got jumbled a lot in the middle.   But the violins were outstanding in this room.

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A Church in the centre of Krakow

Having the official photographer with me meant the good camera was also in town.   this photo was taken in the middle of the night (about 9 pm, 3 hours after sunset) without a flash . . . amazing!


Jinhee boarded a plane for Warsaw, then Stockholm on Wednesday morning and so I began my drive home from Krakow.   In my original plan I would have been leaving from Warsaw and so arriving in Vienna late at night.   Jinhee decided to fly from Krakow and so I began much earlier.   This meant arriving in Vienna around dinner time.

I took the opportunity to park outside the city, near the Danube, put the bike together and ride.  The cycling paths are once again phenomenal.  I did a 30K loop along the river and while I didn’t see much of the city itself, I did enjoy the atmosphere.   I understand Vienna is an expensive city, so I decided to avoid spending the night, but I will come back to explore more.  (Note: Vienna was just voted the most liveable city in the world.   I completely see why from the parks, paths, etc that I saw.   Don’t know about the other aspects, but this is definitely liveable space.)

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Getting out of Vienna was harder than I expected.  It was a straight shot South, but the traffic at 7pm was very congested for about 10-15km out of the city.    But I pressed on.   The distances here are not that great between countries, and by about 10pm I was crossing into Slovenia.

I had wanted to see some of Slovenia, but two things kept me moving.  First, it was dark, but I was not really tired.  Second, I wasn’t sure if the electrical post supporting the boats’ systems had enough power (We pay for power on the docks, and I was second guessing my pre-departure planning).  So I, essentially drove straight through Slovenia in about an hour.

An interesting bit about these countries.   Both Austria and Slovenia sell vignettes which are essentially licenses to drive in the country.   I didn’t understand this when I hit Austria, and thought it was some sort of toll, but there was no toll booth.  I kept going.   In Slovenia, I stopped and got my vignette . . . 15 Euros for a minimum 7 day vignette.   I was there for less than two hours.   I probably could have skipped it again but I am not sure and so I bought a vignette like the sign said to.  In Austria, I just kept driving and hoped that I didn’t get ‘caught’ for not having one, even though I didn’t know what it was for, what the consequences were for not having one, etc.   It’s an interesting bit of travel policy and even more interesting bit of psychology wondering constantly if you are doing something wrong!

In any case by about 10 pm I entered Croatia (no automobile search this time) and pulled into a hotel in Zagreb by 11:30.  The landscape was of course shrouded in darkness so I saw nothing.

After a good night’s sleep, I went for a stroll through downtown Zagreb.  I wish I could communicate something interesting about the place, but frankly I don’t know what would be a fair description.   A couple of photos of some downtown official looking buildings (perhaps museums or galleries) and then we will change the subject.  😁

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By now, I am getting pretty tired of driving and the doubt about my power planning for the boat is eating away at my brain.   Nothing has changed, its just my brain was left to obsess for a while and it did so, exceptionally well.

So I begin the drive to Tivat . . . I don’t know where it happened, probably not immediately outside of Zagreb but the landscape became very, very beautiful.   I think it was about after the turn south away from Zadar, and then there is a descent on a brand new road into landscape that looks like Arizona but not as red.  In any case, it is new road, sparse, but scenic and no, you can’t ride a bike on this road.   There may be secondary roads, but they are not at all obvious.

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This from a moving car . . . sorry!

But I trundled on. By the time I reached Split I was tired and signs everywhere reminded me, in English no less, “If you’re tired, please stop”, and so I did.  I revisited the Solin ruins in Split and took a bit more time to read signs.

By 5 pm I was on the road to Tivat and on the boat by 10pm.

A final note about that last leg, once you leave Zagreb, this wonderful new highway is a toll highway.  Crossing from Zagreb to Dubrovnik cost about 40 Euros on this highway (no, that’s not the fuel, that is the toll on the road).  To be sure it is a nice road, and I was going to pay it to get back to the boat, but here’s my final thought on Croatia for today . . .

I have travelled around a LOT for many years on business and for many years as a tourist.  In the past five months I have visited Croatia four times and not a single day went by when I didn’t feel like I was being robbed by somebody.   Despite the beauty, I have no plans to return to Croatia anytime soon.  More importantly I will tell anyone that asks, don’t go unless you have some unmitigated need to see the country.  It’s just too expensive and not worth what they charge.

When I arrived at the boat, I had about a day of power left (great planning on my part, second guessing was not necessary) and everything was just like I left it.

Today was the beginning of the next phase of the trip, but that will begin in a new post, on a new day.

4 thoughts on “Road Trip to Poland

  1. Don,

    Your cross country trek thus far has got my head spinning. It sounds like a wonderful tour of that part of Eastern Europe. Love your descriptions and the pictures and can’t wait for your next installment.

    Richard

    1. Thanks Richard. I hope all is going well with the new house! (Is it still new?)

  2. Sounds like a great tour. Makes me want to do some cycle touring in Eastern Europe

    1. Yeah, I have seen a lot of people on bikes in the past three weeks or so. Amazing cycling culture once you get out of former Yugoslavia The roads between towns are perhaps not the best, particularly in these former Yugoslavia countries, but there may be many good side roads. Just ask if you plan something, and I will give you some insight on what I saw and where (particularly the mountain paths in Slovakia . . . the country looks a bit behind the times as perhaps you would expect, but I would love to know how prevalent the paths are through the mountains. Come back soon, I will be updating more over of the trip over the next day or two! And congratulations again on being a Canadian Record holder!!! Amazing.

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