by Judi Lees
I pedal a country road surrounded by pastoral postcard scenes: picturesque, weathered wooden farmhouses, dense forests cut a brilliant green contrasting fields of wheat, wildflowers spangle the roadside and all is back-dropped by mountain peaks. We stop to take pictures before we head into the sleepy village of Leszczyny, Poland.
After decades under communist rule and a horrific war history, this eastern European country is now on travellers’ hit lists. When I found a cycling trip with Freedom Treks I called my friend Barb and she was instantly keen. What a pal. Let’s face it, finding a travel mate for soft adventure trips when you are into a “certain age” bracket, is not easy.
Upon arrival in Krakow and viewing its Main Market Square I knew our choice was a good one. The expansive square (it has been compared to the size of six football fields) boasts the Gothic tower of former city hall, the renaissance Cloth Hall, the Church of St. Mary constructed between 13th and 16th centuries and many more intriguing facades and monuments. Top this up with the presence of the decorative horse-drawn carriages and you have myriad shutter-clicking moments. The UNESCO World Heritage Site was our starting point for this seven-day, self-guided cycling trip.
To me, self-guided is the best of both worlds. You are provided with a bike, map and directions plus the convenience of your bags being moved and your accommodation and dinners pre-booked. On this trip, it happened there were 22 other cyclists plus a guide shepherding three clients. We enjoyed the blend of German, American, Belgian and Swiss. (It was always interesting to compare directions along the way in different languages.)
The first morning we two pedaled around Krakow. What a pleasure. As well as the historical attractions of Stare Miasto (the old town), Wawal Royal Castle, and the university (founded in the 1300s), we cycled along the Vistula River and into the Planty, a verdant ring park that encircles the old town. Next we were transported to Zab, Poland’s highest village, where we were back on our bikes to follow a rather challenging route to Zakopane, the country’s famous alpine resort.
This day was a fine example of why I choose to cycle in foreign destinations. The countryside was glorious with picture-perfect villages, some with old wood-framed buildings, amid sprawling meadows lush with crops and wildflowers.
On a bike, everything is in your face the warm air is filled with the fragrance of the outdoors, you hear children at play and wave to locals busy with their everyday chores. Another day, a cable car ride out of Zakopane rewarded us with a panoramic view of the High Tatra Mountains and then a blissful downhill ride to zoom through the pastoral landscape. One day we headed into Slovakia, no passport necessary, to pedal 22 miles (34km) along a new cycling path that followed what was originally a train track.
This was a dream day — the trail was flat and on each side fields swayed with swaths of pink, white and yellow wildflowers. Although four of us pedaled, we were each silently lost in our thoughts. Each small town boasted luxuriant gardens and a church, often ancient. At Denbo, we took a break and pedaled a rough track to view a river gorge. A shortcut suggested on our directions, took us into the forest and a rather mucky route. Four women (we cycled often with Barbel and Lisa, new German friends) and mud is not a good combination but we made it.
One day we did a wicked hill, apparently just a little over a mile (2km), but it felt like so much more — but the reward was the spectacular views of Niedzica Castle after the downhill. The best day for me was leaving Szczawnica, a jewel of a spa town tucked into a river valley famous for its healthy mineral waters. In the brilliance of morning sunshine, we followed the Dunajec River into a craggy limestone gorge, viewing tourists and many school children on the famed raft ride that maneuvers among the rapids.
Our last stop was Stary Sacz a market town that exudes all the charms that we visit Europe for: you know, the bell towers, winding, cobbled streets, the churches (in this case a convent, circa 1280, where we heard a symphony rehearsing), and gorgeous old buildings that now house restaurants and shops. From here we were transported back to Krakow to a celebratory dinner in Kazimierz, the Jewish district noted for its restaurants. While Poland is not known for its cuisine and we were often a little off the beaten track while cycling, the soups were always delicious and we acquired a taste for Pierogi that has no resemblance to the frozen variety sold at home. In and around Krakow, there was no end to excellent restaurants whose entrees matched North American standards. One hundred and thirty-seven miles (220 km) later, Barb and I agreed that Poland is the perfect place to pedal.
Judi Lees is a B.C. – based author and travel writer. Her novel, Lester’s Gift, deals with the question: If you are not who you think you are, then who are you? You can connect with her at Judi Lees Writes or on FaceBook.
Freedom Treks specializes in cycling trips throughout Europe.