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.

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