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Trip Report Trip Report: Car tour of SE Poland, May 2012

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Trip Report: travels in SE Poland, May 2012

On our last stay in Krakow we picked up a car reserved through and furnished by NFM (Nivette Fleet Management) for 862PLN (about $265) for a ten day rental. It was a Fiat Grande Punto, which was more than enough for the two of us. We had no intention of spending much time on super highways--Poland boasts on having the second highest speed limits in Europe on these roads, and one must be careful about moving to the passing lane--and almost any car will do on secondary roads, at least when it is a standard shift. We could not be picked up at the place where we stayed because it is in a restricted travel zone, but they arranged to pick us up about three blocks away, took us to a suburban house with limited parking space, and that was where the office was located. We gave our credit card number for the potential hold in case of accident (it’s the broker who provides the no excess, i.e. no deductible, insurance), we checked the car for dings and drove off.

From the Green Guide we found references to wooden churches ( ) in the countryside, so we went to look for them, using the Michelin regional map which fully covers the area we intended to see.

Our first stop was Lipnica Murowana to see St. Leonard’s church, which is on the World’s Heritage list. We parked in the main square and walked down to the church after getting some general directions as to its location. It was open and we walked inside. Two women were there doing a cleaning. When I took out my camera, I was told with gestures that I could not take photos. Then I found a brochure that seemed to indicate that photo taking was allowed for a fee. I pointed that out, and I was allowed to take pictures. But I did not pay because they were just cleaning personnel who did not take money and were finishing their job. As I walked out they locked the door and the church was closed. There are wonderful paintings, probably from the late 18th or early 19th century--although the church has an older history--on the wall, and it would have been a shame not to see them ( ). Back in town we came across a funeral procession with recorded chanting coming out of loudspeakers from the hearse, letting everyone know that this was taking place. We found a restaurant off the main square--possibly the only one in town--where we were the only ones to have lunch. I ordered too much: I had herring as a first course, and out came four thick herring fillets with sour cream and onions on the side--some of the best herring I’ve ever had. Then I had a main course of fried chicken livers--a little overdone--which filled the whole plate. There were absolutely no vegetables, because in most Polish restaurants these must be ordered separately. Although I do not recall the exact amount, I do recall that the bill was ridiculously low.

From there we drove back-country roads to Rajbrot, following the Green Guide suggestions. The church in Rajbrot and a student acting as a caretaker in the summer. She spoke English, let me photograph the interior of the church (not as painted as some) and even urged me to climb up to the choir loft to get a better ensemble picture ( ). She also gave me a map (Szlak Architektury Drewnianej--Wojewodztwo Malopolskie associated with this web site: ) which marked the location of historical monuments (mainly churches) in the area surrounding Krakow. I would recommend this map for anyone touring the area--it goes as far west as Auschwitz and as far south as Zakopane. It includes suggested itineraries. It was much more than we needed because we were on our way to Zakopane and were not spending much more time touring the area.

We drove on to Zakopane and looked for our hotel, the Willa Orla ($108 for two nights), found through This was one of the three reservations we made for our stay in Poland, thinking that Zakopane might present problems since it is a big resort town. We need not have worried because we were between seasons, but Zakopane is somewhat disorienting when arriving by car, so that it might be best to have reservations just to know where to go. I highly recommend the Willa Orla which is located on the Koscieliska Street which is described thus by the Green Guide: “This very long street is Zakopane’s architectural masterpiece”. Willa Orla is a 15 to 20 minute walk from downtown Zakopane, and is located next to a restored farmhouse which is now a museum. It is more than a B&B in that it has about ten rooms, clearly set up for guests coming for winter sports. We were given a room in the back that covered the width of that wing, with a brand new bathroom, and a small refrigerator in the room. The establishment provided the best buffet breakfast we had in the whole trip. The one negative was that our good umbrella was stolen from where we had left it in the vestibule so as not to drip water on the wooden floors.

If someone wanted to do some hiking in the Tatras, Zakopane would be a logical base. When we were there, it was raining--we even had snow one morning--so taking nature walks was not in the works. We visited several museums, starting with the one next to the Willa Orla. We also saw the Stanislaw Witkiewicz Zakopane-style Museum, which is a mix of what the house was like as an Art Nouveau residence and a museum of traditional crafts as found in farmhouses, the latter being similar in arrangements as the first museum we visited. We also visited the Tytus Chalubinski’s Tatra Museum, which includes exhibits and information about the areas nature in addition to exhibits of traditional crafts. None of this took very long, and toward the end of the afternoon (we stayed one full day in Zakopane), we drove to Chocholow to visit a traditional village which is not a museum--yet.

Our meals were not memorable in either direction. The first one was in a hotel restaurant mentioned in the Green Guide. It was practically empty and could seat close to 100 guests. But there was a quartet all dressed in traditional clothes playing music of that area for a tour group sitting nearby. The other meal was in a restaurant located in a former farmhouse half way between the downtown and our hotel. The food was fine. None of the prices were excessive.

We left Zakopane to go toward Poland’s Carpathian region. On the way we stopped to see the Debno church (probably the most impressive interior of all the wooden churches), and the churches in Sekowa and Haczow. Past the Debno church we were out of Fodor’s territory. For some reason, its 2007 Poland guide leaves out Poland’s Carpathian region entirely. Sanok, its main town, is not even in the index. Fortunately, the Green Guide does have information about that area. Sekowa was the last of the wooden churches on our trip that was of the Roman Catholic rite. These churches were identified by a rood screen that was reduced to a large beam with a crucifix above it ( ). Farther east, the churches were of the Graeco-Catholic and Orthodox rite, without the bean and crucifix, but often with a full screen ( ). There may be other differences, but this was an obvious one for me.

On our drive, we stopped for coffee at a resort overlooking Lake Czorstynskie with the snowy Tatras in the background. Lunch was an amusing experience. We looked for a town center in Sekowa and found nothing. There was no real core with a square, as with Lipnica Murowana where one can orient oneself from that core. But we needed to eat and we needed bathroom facilities. We came across a new building that had an upstairs restaurant advertising pizza. We were practically the only customers. The restrooms were new and clean (as they generally were throughout our travels), but no one spoke English, French or German, and I do not speak Polish, so ordering was problematic. The prices indicated were around 6 zlotys, high for a slice, low for a whole pizza. We ordered two units (for lack of a better term), and it turns out they were whole 14” pizzas; way to much food, so that we just ate the topping, not bothering with the dough. In Haczow we came across an ATM which we used, not knowing how frequently we would find them. It turned out that we had no problems in that regard throughout the trip. We generally withdrew 1000 zlotys at a time (about $323) because we usually paid in cash except for the hotels where we stayed for multiple days.

Sanok is the main town of the Bieszczady area, bordering on Slovakia and the Ukraine. It has a pleasant main square, and a relatively small historical center. We stayed right off the square, behind city hall, at the Sanvit Hotel.(495PLN or $148 for three nights) which is as described by the Green Guide, but the breakfast is forgettable. We had a suite with a room with couch, a bedroom, and a large bath room--all the doors extra wide for wheelchairs because the hotel is a rehabilitation center. Our first evening meal was in a cellar café, Emiko, off the main street that essentially is a drinking place with available food (58PLN or $18). My recollection is that the menu was limited, and I ordered steak tartare which was fine, although the capers were missing. Sanok is a town that was mentioned in The Good Soldier Schweik (and was split in half under the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939), and there is a statue of Schweik on the main walking street from the square. It is by an alley that has a Czech restaurant, which we decided to try, for a change. Unfortunately no one could explain the menu to us, so we ate on the square in a recommended traditional restaurant; good food, nothing memorable. Our last evening meal was in a restaurant on the Ul. Grodka between the Rynek and Ul. Lazienna. It was one of the fancier establishments, with white tablecloths, a waiter in jacket and tie, definitely giving us the feeling that being a little dressed up was the order of the day (for me, black slacks and a clean dress shirt). We were the only ones in the restaurant once a group of well-dressed ladies left. The food was good, and it was one of the rare places where vegetables were included with the main dish, which means that the higher prices of the main dishes were offset by not having to order vegetable side dishes. My recollection is that the meal was less than at the more expensive venues we frequented in Krakow (see my trip report). Travel in Poland is relatively cheap.

What we saw: On our first full day in Sanok we went to see the skansen. We reserved a guide through the desk clerk at the hotel. The guide met us at the appointed hour at the skansen, and a guide is essential. All the buildings are locked and someone must have the key to unlock them if one wants to see the interiors. That’s the essential function of the guide. She can also give information. It was explained to us that there are three identifiable ethnic groups in that area of the Carpathians, and that one of them was expelled to the Ukraine between 1945 and 1948 because of continuous Ukrainian guerrilla activities seeking independence of the Soviet Union. Most of the Orthodox churches were abandoned or destroyed, to the point that now some Greaco-Catholic churches are turned over to Orthodox congregations which have returned from the Ukraine. The countryside has few traditional buildings remaining, those that were found to be good enough to be rehabilitated were moved to the skansen for preservation purposes. The skansen has a wide variety of traditional farm buildings, and also some churches and a rectory. It is a good way of getting an overview of what traditional rural life used to be--minus the smells and the hard labor. Our tour took about three hours, after which we ate pirogie are the food place that was just outside the skansen (ordering was a problem as they had no time to waste on linguistically challenged foreigners), and then went back to town, too late to visit the Historical Museum. We went to the tourist office for more information, and received far more inoframtion than we needed. We received a good dozen documents, including a couple of booklets: “Wooden Architecture Route” and “Conjured in Wood” covering the SE of Poland. Most interesting for me was the map of the Carpathian Euroregion that includes parts of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine and Romania--I can imagine an amateur of traditional rural crafts, and wooden architecture, especially churches, using this map to visit this area of Europe (the map is produced by Carpathian House “suported by a grant from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA Financial Mechanism and the Norwegian Financial Mechansim”). The Carpathian Foundation is located in Sanok, which may be why the map was available. The man at the tourist office was so happy to be able to speak French, which was better than his adequate English, that he bent my ear for 30 minutes speaking of the wonders of that area of Poland. The tourist office also has a computer where one can check e-mails.

The next day we followed the Green Guide driving tours, combining the Oslawa Valley, The Lemk Churches Trail with the “Ramble through the Polonina Wetlinska” by taking the road between Radsyce and Majdan. The Lemk was the Orthodox group moved to the Ukraine which has now returned to this area of Poland. We were lucky in that there was a baptism in one church and some type of service/procession in the other; otherwise the churches that we saw tended to be locked, with some having an iron gate that sllowed us to see the interior, but others simply closed so that the interior could not be seen. The church with the procession put us in an embarrassing position. We notice the procession leaving the church, going up toward the back, so we quickly went in, thinking that it would be closed because the congregation left. But it only went around the church and gathered in front of the porch to hear the priest standing on the porch steps read something from what I assume is a prayer book, and there we were stuck on the porch behind him. (That’s the church from a distance: ). Our trip on this day essentially followed the border with Slovakia and Ukraine. The second half is the more tourist oriented section and is in large part a national park, with a narrow gauge railway for just passengers and nice scenery of rolling hills. The Carpathians are much lower than the Tatras in this region--the high Carpathians are found on a line between Sibiu and Brasov in Romania. We came across a lot of motorcyclists on Harley-Davidsons or similar machines. In one instance there were at least 40 individual riders in one group. We got back to Sanok in the early evening.

From Sanok we drove in one easy day to Zamosc, passing by Lancut and back in Fodor’s territory. The castle was closed (story of our travels in Poland) but the stables and the orangerie were open with a collection of carriages, most of them from the second half of the nineteenth century. For some reason photography is not allowed.

Zamocs is an intersting town in several ways. My wife had chosen it as a destination because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its core was constructed in a fairly short time in the 16th century using the designs of an Italian architect. It has a beautiful Rynek dating from that period with the city hall added in the 18th century. The town has been well-preserved (or rebuilt) and is definitely worth a day’s visit if touring eastern Poland. More recent history is also interesting. Under the Stalin-Hitler Pact it was allocated to the Germans, and after a few weeks, the border was readjusted and the Soviets moved in. The final readjustment left the town in the hands of the Germans, and most of the Jewish population left with the Soviets, having already experienced the German occupation. At that time, before the pact, Jews made up 49% of the population, owning 70% of the commercial enterprises and 95% of the manufacturing. A recipe for disaster--outsiders with a perceived financial stranglehold are always resented, as seen with the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, the Indians in Uganda, the Koreans in L.A. etc. There is no mention of the survival rate of that part of the Jewish population that left with the Soviets, although I suspect that they probably did not migrate far enough to escape the Holocaust. In the 19th century, the Austrians built a circular bastion beyond the city walls, connected to the city by an underground tunnel. The Nazis used it as a prison, torture center, and transfer point for various undesirable groups, and it is now a memorial (the gun emplacements turned into cells can be visited), with the single and mass graves of Poles, Soviet soldiers and Jews surrounding the bastion. The original town wall is being rebuilt, and eventually the old town will become a Carcassonne on the Polish/Ukraine border. The old town is already very limited in terms of daily commercial enterprises. The market is small and going downhill, we found one bank in the center, and while we did not see it, I suspect that most of daily life and commercial activity takes place outside the old town which is encircled by a broad roadway.

We had the worse luck with museums in Zamosc. The Arsenal was recommended, but it was being renovated. The cathedral was being renovated as well as its tower, so we could not go up the tower (it would have offered a wonderful view of the old town). Only two museums were open: the “Armenian” houses next to City Hall which contained historical and folk items from the area as well as an original kitchen still blackened with soot, and the synagogue, now a museum with few items to display but the opportunity to see old films (on video) of various Polish ghettos. This is where we saw a video that used to be available in one of the Krakow synagogues.

We stayed at a place suggested by the tourist office and recommended by the Green Guide. It was way out of date, and in serious need of renovation. Going up the stairs while like going back in time to pre-1989, with no pleasant surprise at the end. The shower worked, but had to be hand-held because the hook was broken. On the other hand, we had a view over the Rynek. Breakfast was forgettable. It did have free parking in the back. Meals were taken in the various restaurants on the Rynek. The setting was pleasant, nothing particularly memorable about the meals. We did have one picnic lunch sitting on a retaining wall near the cathedral.

From Zamosc we drove to what was presumably my mother’s birthplace, but there remained nothing of the old town. The city hall was brand new and the housing we saw was post-W.W.II. I went there just to take a picture of the town sign for a relative who is digging through archives to establish his family history. We continued our travels to the Baranow Sandomierski castle, which was open. What we saw that was old of the castle was nice, but nothing compared to French or Italian palaces. However, the chapel was exceptional in that it was redone in the Art Nouveau style. The Green Guide claims that it is richly furnished, but then these rooms are not included in the official tour, and I had the distinct impression that the hotel that the Guide mentions is on the grounds of the castle, but not in the main building. It’s worth a visit, which is by guided tour and in Polish, so we missed the historical descriptions which were surely included in the guides patter.

We spent the night in the town of Sandomierz which has a nice Rynek. We ate on one of the restaurant terraces along one side of the square (83.50PLN or $26).

From Sandomierz we drove to Zalipie, crossing the Vistula on a small ferry. The village of Zalipie is known for its flowery decorations, started by a woman after W.W.II--her house is a museum of such decorations, completely over the top ( ). The village itself is spread out over a large area. It has a large community center where workshops are held in the local folk art, and which has a gift shop, but there are practically no houses around that community center. The church is a couple of kilometers away, again standing alone in the countryside, and that is the case of most of the houses which may be part of a farm compound, but otherwise are generally not clustered, so that one must drive (or bicycle) around to see the decorations.

Our intention was to stop for two nights in Jedrzejow, which was halfway between the skansen in Tokarnia and Krakow where we would be returning the car and take the train to Wroclaw. We had lunch in Pinczow, right off the main square which is lively and pleasant. Our lunch was in a Polish fast food place, offering pizza, the Polish version of foccacia which we took, and also one plate meals. Ordering was a problem, and then we sat where seating was available, sharing the table with another customer. Jedrzejow was the worse town we encountered. Traffic was terrible because of construction on road between Krakow and Kielce which detoured all traffic through the narrow streets of the town with trucks passing each other by climbing on the sidewalk; the town was unattractive, and we did not see a single hotel while driving around trying to get to the town center. There was nothing to entice us to stop except for the sundial museum. It can only be seen on the hour because an attendant must follow you through the house and the “tour” starts on the hour. The house belonged to a doctor who collected sundials--hundreds of them. He also collected farm house objects which are stored higgledy-piggledy in the basement. The museum is interesting for its sundials, and especially because most of the house is still a pre-W.W.I bourgeois house--a nice change from rural architecture and furnishings, with interesting comparisons. For example, the kitchen is still quite similar to rural cooking corners.

Unable to find a hotel or the tourist office in Jedrzejow to give us the name of a hotel, we drove north toward Tokarnia, expecting to find accommodations in Kielce. But there is a brand-new (it opened the week before) roadside hotel-restaurant about 500 meters beyond the entrance of the skansen, with one staff member who spoke fluent English. The place is obviously modern and clean, with windows that block outside noises when closed. The restaurant is mainly a pizza place, which was not crowded, but locals were already gathering there for an evening meal or to order take out. Unfortunately the English speaking staff was not there at dinner time, and we had problems ordering; the meal ws forgettable, but then this was a roadside restaurant where the locals came for pizza.

The next day we visited the skansen which is within walking distance of the hotel but also has a large free parking lot. I found it superior to the skansen in Sanok because I felt that it had a greater variety of buildings. It also staffed many buildings, so that they were open to the public without a guide, and it means that touches of homeyness, such as flowers on the window sills, can be found here and there. It is a constantly expanding skansen, with the regional sections well defined, and with ongoing construction. We were surprised by the amount of new wood that was being used, until a staff person told us that under EU restoration rules (an architect friend of ours in Paris who was heavily involved in EU restoration when working in Brussels never heard of EU restoration rules), a building would be considered historical if 30% of its construction materials and/or contents were original. The visit lasted just a morning--there is a similarity in farm houses throughout that area so that not all buildings need to be visited. The kitchen designs, particularly the cooking areas, are the same in rural Poland, Slovakia and Romania--and more advanced than what existed in rural France until well into the 20th century. Many farm houses in France used an open fireplace for cooking until a stove was inserted in the space after W.W.II. Baking, whether dishes or bread, was often done in a communal oven in the village--Collonges-la-Rouge still has its no longer used communal oven. The cooking/heating systems in countries with colder climates, such as Poland, were more efficient.

We had a light lunch--a plate of pirogies--in their restaurant and left for Kielce. This is the skansen to visit when staying in Krakow as it is only 100 km. (60 mi.) from the city, but it is not mentioned in Fodor’s.

Kielce (of which there is no mention in Fodor’s) was the largest town we visited once we left Krakow . It was a way to spend an afternoon in a pleasant historic center. Driving in was terrible because of construction and detours, both outside and inside the city. Somehow we found a large parking garage at the edge of the historic town. We walked up to the Rynek where we had a coffee, and then walked to the cathedral and bishop’s palace. The visit of the palace was a unique experience. It is a very large building with rooms to be seen separated by long corridors. The attendants do not follow the visitors but use walkie-talkies to tell the attendant in the next section of the palace that someone is coming. At that point a door is unlocked and you are told to walk down the corridor to the next door which is opened by the next attendant. The photos give a sense of what is to be seen in the palace. We did not see any other visitors while we were there.

We had difficulty finding the Palace Zielinskiego, a restaurant recommended by the Green Guide, and it definitely did not meet the definition given in the guide (traditional dishes served in a Romantic setting). Either the restaurant was closed, or limited to a private party; at any rate, there was no service inside. There was an outside garden area with a very limited menu--one orders at the bar, and it is brought to your table, and it took a very long time for what was ordered (I recall waiting, but not the specifics of what we ordered). I mention this because I am becoming more and more skeptical of the Green Guides restaurant recommendations which often are completely unrelated to the Red Guide (where a Red Guide exists) recommendations, to the point that what is recommended in the Green Guide generally does not appear in the Red Guide. The Green Guide recommendations were often disappointing, and their hotel recommendation for Zamosc was similarly deficient.

From Tokarnia we drove to Krakow, met the car rental person as arranged when we picked up the car, turned over the car and he drove us to the train station, dropping us off in the parking garage. From there it was a maze of halls and corridors, leading us to the main bus ticket hall, and around the station, and we finally found a booth tucked in a corner where we could purchase our tickets to go to Wroclaw. Our thanks to PeterB for giving us the Polish cheat sheet which we had printed to order the tickets. There must be another central ticket place, but we never found it. The trains station has been renovated--that’s obvious from the train platforms--but the rest is still under construction with no signs to indicate where tickets can be purchased.

The Wroclaw portion of the trip will constitute another report.

Here are the photos for that part of our trip in Poland:

If interested in the two maps and brochures mentioned in this report, click on my name to discuss a no-cost-to-me transfer of the items.

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