Wednesday 1/6

Over a leisurely breakfast we discuss our journey and decide that today we'll make for Krakow. It is reputed to be beautiful and if we're going to take two nights there as planned, it will make a good base for the visit to what has now come to feel like the 'centrepiece' of the trip: Auschwitz-Birkenau.

There's a little confusion as we try to leave town. There's one road on the rudimentary World Map on the GPS and two roads (one either side of the railway) in the real world. The first one leads to a dead end at the station. Must be the one on the other side then!

From here the roads really seriously deteriorate. We spend a long time on major trunk roads. These are the roads big enough to get on the GPS World Map but they are the size of English B roads and in spectacularly poor condition. Its not just pot-holes - they can be avoided - but ripples in the surface, patching everywhere, and general lack of maintenance. The countryside they're going though is rather nice, though. Nothing desperately special, just green and pleasant. The roads aren't as busy as the previous day had led us to expect, but the vehicles we do encounter are mainly trucks and most of them seemed to be on our side of the road. Oncoming, you understand, but on our side of the road anyway. Coming round a blind, downhill left-hander to find that both sides of the road are filled by an oncoming HGV that is very slowly overtaking another HGV, is profoundly scary. In fact, scary is not nearly a big enough word for this sort of thing.

The villages we see along this route aren't in the main big enough to be villages as such. Hamlets, all. In one, we pause for some traffic lights and I nearly miss them going green because I'm watching a dog being stalked by a small cat :)

At another we stop for coffee in a roadside cafe. It was awful, the place and the coffee. So awful that I couldn't drink my coffee and had to leave it there. Jerry wisely had Fanta so he could gulp it down and get out quickly.

We stop for water in and water out (if you see what I mean) by that looks like a closed military site. Perhaps an aerodrome. The road is open and fairly empty here and on the few remaining buildings is an expression of the local feelings about the EU. Later we pass an industrial area of some sort and the road turns from knackered tarmac to concrete. As we approach it this looks OK but it turns out to have more ripples than a Cadbury's Flake. Jerry slows down as he's seriously worried about subframe carnage. I speed up to try and even out the bumping. Neither policy is overly successful.

As we go through one of the many villages, I see a restaurant sign and turn off so we can grab some lunch. We park up outside a long, relatively new looking building and we walk in. The place is completely empty apart from one disinterested old woman who glances at us and then turns away. We go straight back out and head off somewhere else. A few miles later in Renska Wies we see another restaurant/cafe building, this time with customers sat outside. We pull into the car park and take seats out the front. We pick up a menu. 5 minutes of desperate staring at the Polish words takes us no closer at all to understanding the thing. Fortunately, one of the other guests overhears our problems and, as he speaks English, advises us on what to have. As we wait for the food to arrive, we chat with this chap. He's Dutch and comes to Poland fairly regularly looking for itinerant labour to go work in Holland for him. Essentially he's what we would call a gangmaster. This sounds like a terribly shady occupation but is actually (if done right) perfectly legal and above board. We tell our new acquaintance that we're headed for Krakow and he advises us of the pleasures to be had with the local girls in Krakow, accompanied by many a knowing leer. He's back in the shady camp then.

The funny thing about this chap is that he's the spitting image of a mutual friend of Jerry and I, a fellow known by the nickname of Handsome Johnny.

Naturally, at least one of the roads we've selected is closed. This takes us on a long detour round the area of Oswiecim and on towards Krakow. I miss the route towards the motorway (no map and no signs so I can be forgiven for this) and we have to get into Krakow by the back roads. Acutely aware of where we are, we keep looking around for signs of the concentration camps or other Second World War buildings. Neither of us catches sight of anything that can be definitely identified as such, however later consideration and perusal of the maps suggests that we might have passed the (closed to visitors) third camp in the complex.

As we approach the multiply recommended Krakow, we get a trifle concerned that it looks absolutely awful. Its all concrete nastiness - worse even than Birmingham. Eventually the buildings get older and nicer. The centre of the city, the Old Town, is lovely. It has all the age, grace and attractiveness that the rest of it sorely lacks. We decide that no matter the cost we will stay in the Old Town. No point going all this way and spoiling things for a few quid.

I get out my Rough Guide and we look at the list of hotels in the Old Town. Lots of them. We ride round finding them one by one. They're all either completely full or can only offer us one night.

Some advice we were given before departing was that when in Eastern Europe, stay anywhere at all, anywhere, except the old State hotel. Except that the only place with any room for us is the Hotel Polonia which looks suspiciously like the old State hotel. Behaves like it, too. The only room they have isn't actually in the hotel - we have to walk down the street, into an old apartment building and up three flights of stairs (and through two more sets of doors) before we get to the rather dilapidated room, which apparently I must see before I can accept it. So I have to take this walk, despite the fact that I'm going to take the room anyhow. Nice views from the window, though the room's otherwise a bit crappy.

I go and get Jerry from where he's been waiting across the road for some time, what with the looking at the room palaver and we book in. Our passports are confiscated - we can have them back tomorrow evening. Very old style Communist & Jerry christens the place Hotel Stalin :) We have to pay in advance. Fortunately the room is, to put it mildly, inexpensive. Breakfast is an optional extra. An optional extra they seem to be keen on discouraging us from having. There's parking for the bikes too - and in a garage, no less. We have to pay for that separately and in cash. Up front of course.

We follow the porter - although he seems to be more a guide than a porter: he's in his 60s and wheezes like he's smoked 40 full strength Russian cigarettes for the last 50 years and he certainly doesn't help with the luggage. Actually, I don't think he could without a heart attack. We follow him down the pavement for 100 yards or so and into an archway under the buildings. There's a barrier, but he has a blipper for that. The area opens out into a generic back-of-tenement style parking area with spaces and garages round the sides. We park the bikes in garage 17 and he locks it up and walks off. Ah, so we don't get the key, then. As we walk out, struggling with the luggage, I notice a sign for the Secret Service. Bikes should be safe then!

We get ourselves to the room (bathroom down the hall). Very quick ablutions follow, including laughing at the tiny and miserably thin towels provided. The shower unit in the bathroom has nothing to hold it up so you have to sit in the corner of the bath and hold it over your head while the water heater in the opposite corner wheezes away to itself.

So we set off into town for food and beer, whilst clutching our large bunch of colour-coded keys (green for the outer door, pink for the door on the stairs, blue for the door at the top of the stairs and red for the room itself).

We wander into the town centre and enjoy looking around. We turn a corner and are in a large square that seems to be hosting a rock concert! Off this square, and as far behind the stage as possible, we find a place that looks good and settle down for a few beers, good food and general talking about this, that and everything.

Now the Old Town in Krakow isn't that big. You'd think, then, that finding our way back to our hotel would be dead easy, wouldn't you? Well so did we, but after 2 complete laps of the place and with thorough investigations of more than one side road, we end up accepting we're completely lost and just wander aimlessly until we vaguely realise we're just down the road from it. Should have taken the GPS to the hotel!

A solid night's sleep follows on the solid beds of Hotel Stalin.

Image of route

Mapsource .gdb file of track

Next day