The long drive to Poland: Part 2

Having arrived in France much later than we’d hoped, just before 1am in the morning, we headed towards Belgium (see part 1 of the story here).

The going at first was slow, the mass of traffic spilt from the guts of the boat impeding our progress. Eventually the road opened up into a dual carriageway and we were able to pass the lorries.

I dozed off for an hour whilst my girlfriend drove on through the night and into Belgium, waking up as we slowed for a slip ramp to find a hotel on the outskirts of Brussels. Our SatNav had indicated a hotel nearby and we pulled up outside it at sometime after 2am.

It looked very quiet.

Too quiet. The front door was locked. We rang a bell, but there was no answer.

We hung around for a few moments, but realised that it being quite a small hotel, we may be out of luck. We hopped back in the car and checked the SatNav again. Several hotels within a few miles were suggested, and we tried to guess from their names whether they would be open 24 hours or not; we dismissed the ones with ‘guesthouse’ in their names, figuring that they would be smaller establishments and less likely to be open. Then we spotted the familiar name of Ibis; surely that would be open?

It was about another 20 minute drive; I took the wheel this time. I’ve driven many times in Europe on various holidays and have no problem driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, and the Rav4 we were returning to Poland having originally been American and therefore already left hand drive, I had no further issues, and reached the hotel without incident.

It was open! And they had a room. It wasn’t cheap though; £70 for a double. It was an Ibis Expo on the outskirts of Brussels, so we couldn’t complain too much – besides, it was almost 3am now and we were desperately in need of a sleep.

But first the bar beckoned!

To the left of the reception I had seen a welcoming looking bar and a wide selection of Belgian beers on offer.

We were in Belgium… surely it would be rude not to sample a Belgian ale?

When in Rome…

The receptionist confirmed the bar was still open, and we each ordered a drink and savoured the beautiful Belgian abbey beer.

We didn’t stick around though; we were exhausted. We headed to our room and quickly showered – it was most definitely necessary after that long in a car – and it was almost 4am before we went to sleep.

We got up around 10am and we were back on the road for 11am. We had wanted to leave earlier, as we wanted to reach the Polish border that evening. But we still had the rest of Belgium, Holland and Germany to do first!

We hit the motorway and stuck our foot down. We tried to reduce our food and toilet stops; we’d stocked up on snacks before leaving; but we were making the most of the Rav4’s LPG conversion to reduce fuel costs, and had to make regular stops to re gas, which added to our travelling time.

Nonetheless, we had an excellent run, apart from some crawling traffic around Antwerp – which there always is – before heading into The Netherlands.

Progress across Germany however was as smooth as a Pilsner, and we crossed into Poland shortly after 7pm.

France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and Poland all being EU countries, there had been no border stops, and the only noticeable change of country if you’d missed the ‘welcome’ sign was the change in language on the roadway signs.

Entering Poland however was noticeable – by the jarring of our spines.

We’d crossed the border south east of Forst, near Cottbus, on the E46, which eventually joins up with the E40 to Wroclaw (pronounced Vrotslav).

What we’d forgotten was that the road had been made by Hitler during the war.

Being constructed from concrete blocks meant a constant dumpadumpadumpa sound and vibration as the car crashed off one block and onto the other.

Some roadworks and general poor road conditions didn’t help matters either.

My girlfriend made some half apologetic half joking comment about ‘Welcome in Poland!‘ and the road condition, but to be honest, I’ve experienced much worse roads in Bulgaria.

We had been driving for 8 hours and hadn’t had much sleep the night before, so decided to find a place to stop. We pulled up at the first roadside Motel but it looked very basic. We weren’t desperately hungry just yet and the SatNav suggested another place within 15 minutes so we headed to that.

We arrived at the Hotel Hayduk, on the edge of Iłowa (pronounced Iwova).

It too looked basic, but admittedly much nicer. They had a large restaurant annexed to the side and there was an LPG filling station too, so we decided to stay.

We were glad we did – the restaurant was excellent, and far surpassed our expectations.

They served very traditional Polish food, and the quality and service were great considering that this was a restaurant at a road side

Polish vodka and Warka Strong dark beer
Polish vodka and Warka Strong dark beer

truck stop..! We went for the fermented cabbage soup with meat, and a beetroot soup to start, both of which were delicious. We then had some Russian dumplings with pork fat and fried onion, and some pork neck. Again, they were both excellent. I tried ‘stomach vodka’ (Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka); a herbal, warming vodka, for the first time – very pleasant – and also discovered Warka Strong beer; a dark, sweet, fizzy ale, that reminded me a little of a Belgian abbey beer such as Duvel. Very pleasant – it was the first time I’d tried it and it certainly wasn’t my last!

After our very satisfying meal, we had a relatively early night and caught up on our sleep.

We set off around 10am and made a leisurely drive to Krakow, arriving the mid afternoon of the Sunday 13th October.

Przegorzały Castle on the outskirts of Krakow
Przegorzały Castle on the outskirts of Krakow (can be seen in distance)

The sun was shining and the weather was glorious; before heading into the town we took a detour to Ziyada restaurant at Przegorzały Castle perched high on a hill on the outskirts of Krakow. They serve a wide range of Polish, Kurdish and European food. We stopped for cake and a beer and managed to find a great spot on the balcony and enjoyed the impressive landscape below us, with the Vistula (in Polish, Wisła, pronounced Viswa) river snaking below us.

We then drove into town.

It was my first time in Krakow – and I was very impressed.

My girlfriend drove me around the town, showing me the various points of interest; places she’d lived or worked; important buildings such as the many Universities, and libraries; the architecture was impressive.

True, there’s the usually communist era tower blocks, but these seemed to be relatively well maintained, unlike some of the blocks I’d seen, and visited, in Bulgaria.

We pulled up at one edge of the town and took a walk up a hill, busy

Old stone quarry/nature reserve in Krakow
Old stone quarry/nature reserve in Krakow

with people enjoying the autumn sunshine. There were signs warning people from visiting the area, yet it was teeming with people. The reason was due to several large old stone quarries, that had been filled with water. There were no fences and the drops were quite extreme, hence the warnings, but it’s beauty meant that they were ignored.

Apparently there is a diving school there also.

After enjoying the scenery and the sun, we headed back to the car and drove back to the centre.

We’d booked an apartment to stay in that night, and were due to fly back the next evening. We’d opted to stay in the ‘bohemian’ and fashionable area of Kazimierz.

After unpacking and freshening up, we headed out – first stop, a vodka bar.

There are many, many pubs and bars in Krakow (it does have 21 Universities with about 170,000 students, so what do you expect!), particularly in Kasimierz, all of which sell a vast range of beers, wines and spirits – in particular, vodka.

There’s the ‘stomach’ herbal vodka I previously mentioned, and then a long list of ‘the usual’ flavoured vokdas on sale; raspberry, cherry, pineapple, lemon, mint, blackcurrant, honey – then quite often other flavours such as ginger, hazelnut, cranberry, lime & mint, pear, mango… the list is endless.

We sampled a couple of different flavours each and went for a stroll.

Admiring the historical streets and buildings, we walked south to the Vistula (Wisła) river, the longest river in Poland. We turned east along its curving banks and headed north east back towards the old town and Wawel (pronounced Vavel) Castle.

It being October, it got a little chilly; so we stopped at a floating bar on the river for more herbal and flavoured vodka.

We walked towards Wawel and admired it’s now floodlight lit walls; I

Krakow old town
Krakow old town

expressed my interest to see it in the daylight and we decided to come back the next day. Now though, it was cold, so opting to avoid the old town due to it’s over popularity with tourists and inflated prices, but skirting the edges so I could get a quick look at the splendid centre, we hurried back to Kasimierz to find a warm bar.

There was no shortage.

We opted for a popular subterrean bar made infamous for it’s historical connections with poets, rebels and romantics. It’s small but cosy interior with vaulted ceilings were a perfect setting to try a hot beer – which was interesting, and warmed me up, but hard to digest! So we switched back to sampling all the flavoured vodkas we hadn’t yet tried – or, by this stage – had forgotten we’d already had.

Steak tartare
Steak tartare

Then we took another stroll through the surprisingly busy streets (it being a Sunday evening) of Kasimierz and to a restaurant for me to try for the first time a steak tartare. The pile of uncooked mince meat, random chopped vegetables and raw egg didn’t look at all appetizing. When it was all mixed together it looked even less so. However – it was delicious. I love smoked salmon and sashimi; the raw meat wasn’t dissimilar in taste and texture.

This was, of course, washed down with some more vodka.

Monday morning we were in no rush to get up. However, we did only have the apartment until midday and I was flying back that evening, to return to work on the Tuesday. My girlfriend was staying on for a few days to visit some friends and family and sort a few things out.

We visited a great place for a late breakfast, the Nova Restaurant,

Wawel Castle, Krakow
Wawel Castle, Krakow

just off the main square in Kazimierz. I was impressed with the sheer range of exotic sounding food options, but opted for a simple croissant with bacon. We then walked to and around the castle at Wawel to clear our heads. The castle is quite spectacular, it having originally been build in the mid 1300s.

I was flying back from Katowice rather than Krakow, which is about an hour and a half drive away. Spurning airport food, we decided to go for more food in the wonderful Krakow, and visited a restaurant called Moment, where we enjoyed spicy coconut soup with chicken and shrimps, washed down with a hot tea made with raspberry vodka. Yes, more vodka.

It had only been a very short time spent in Poland but I had thoroughly enjoyed myself. It wasn’t to be my last visit.

The long drive to Poland: Part 1

The first time I visited Poland, a couple of years ago, we drove there.

We didn’t really have a choice – we needed to return my girlfriends car there. She’d bought it across to the UK when she’d moved here six months ago, and the law stated that it could only stay in the country for six months before having to register it.

She loved her car, an American model (2.4l auto) 2004 Toyota Rav4, and we’d considered registering it here in the UK to be able to keep it. However, it was left hand drive so not ideal in the UK, and other tax and insurance complexities meant that it had to go. Selling a left hand drive car in the UK is always difficult, and the market for these types of car in Poland allegedly being good at the time, we decided to drive it back there, and for a friend to sell it on.

On a Friday afternoon in grey  October, I left work on the borders of North Wales, near Chester, early at about 3:30pm, picked up the girlfriend, and we set off for the south coast.

Friday afternoon motorway traffic being what it is, and having to cover a long distance over several major motorways and known congestion spots, we’d decided to set off as soon as we could and had opted for a ferry option that gave us some flexibility.

Long drive to Dover ferry port
Long drive to Dover ferry port

Direct ferries allowed us to buy a ‘standard’ ticket that allowed us (should there be sufficient space on board) to board a ferry one time slot before the purchased time, or one slot afterwards. P&O wanted a significant amount extra to be able to add any flexibility.

We decided to purchase the 10pm ticket (via our favourite site, TopCashBack, of course!). If the traffic was sweet all the way down, the earliest we could arrive was just after 7pm, which would set us up nicely for the ferry one time slot before the midnight slot, i.e. the 8pm ferry. However, we knew that this would be unlikely, and were happy to accept the 10pm ferry. If things were really bad, we could still get the next slot, the midnight ferry.

Some ferries went to Dunkirk, others to Calais – it didn’t make a huge difference to us, as the time made up on the shorter Calais crossing was eaten up by about the same amount of time driving east past Dunkirk and into Belgium.

As it was, it was slow going. We suffered the usually sluggish traffic going down the M6 near Manchester & Knutsford, and hit the expected congestion around Birmingham. The roadworks around Luton had further impeded our progress, as had the petrol, toilet and snack stops. By the time we hit the M25 though, the worst of rush hour was over. Nonetheless, it was still slow going, and traffic crawled pathetically slowly over the Dartford bridge.

Progress wasn’t much better when we got off the M25, due to some more roadworks, and the inevitable slow lorry in front of us on the single carriageways. Added to all this, there was a torrential rain storm, and visibility was vastly reduced. Deep puddles built up at the side of the road threatened to pull us off the road. It was hard going!

At half past 9 at night, bombing towards the docks, we read the ferry arrival procedures. It seemed to suggest that you needed to arrive at least 45 minutes prior to sailing, else they might not let you on. So we may have had to wait until the midnight ferry, which would have been a pain.

We decided to call the ferry company, and let them know we were coming.

The lady on the phone was somewhat stroppy, but she said that depending on how busy it was, they may let us on with fiften minutes to spare.

We reached Dover at 9:45pm.

Searching frantically for the correct port and lane, we bounced along the rough ground and flew into the stop & search area. We were asked to open the boot, and they held a mirror underneath the car, but only delayed us for a moment.

At ten minutes to ten, we drove onto the ferry.

It actually sailed only five minutes later, i.e. five minutes before it was due to leave!

We breathed a sigh of relief and headed off to find some comfortable seats. If we’d had to sit in the car for another 2 hours, in the cold, that would have been very frustrating, especially as we planned to try and drive for another hour or two once we’d crossed.

Had we taken the best route to Dover?

We’d actually had three route options: carry on around Birmingham, taking the M40 down to the M25; turn off at Birmingham and take the M6 to the M1 and to the M25; or cut across the M1 to take the A14 cross country to get onto the A1, down to the M25.

None of them were ideal. We couldn’t avoid the M6 traffic, nor Birmingham – unless we opted to go across country to Nottingham at Stoke on Trent, but we knew that would take longer. But what would be better, the M40, the M1, or the A14 & A1?

The M40 would most likely be the least congested, but it bring us to the wrong side of the M25. This route had the longest stretch of the M25, which put me off.

In hindsight, it wouldn’t have mattered so much – rush hour was more or less over by the time we would have hit the M25.

The A14-A1 option didn’t appeal as it meant quite a few stretches of single carriageway and I knew that if we took this option, we’d have been stuck behind countless lorries and tractors or other slow moving vehicles.

So I’d recommend the M40 option if you are considering doing a similar journey from the North West to the South East on a Friday afternoon at a similar time of day.

Have contemplated this and found a reasonably comfortable corner of a quiet restaurant on board the ferry, we piled our coats up as padding and laid down for a couple of hours, trying to get some sleep.

At midnight the ferry arrived at Dunkirk.

As soon as the announcment came on that you could return to your car and the doors unlocked, a mass of humanity poured to the lower levels to get to their cars as soon as they could.

And waited.

It took about 30 minutes before we could even start to crawl forward; and another 15 minutes passed until we finally drove off the ferry.

It was a quarter to 1 in the morning, on Saturday the 12th of October 2013, but we were in France!

Only that, and three more countries, to drive through, in order to reach our destination.

See Part 2 of the story