I was really excited about this trip as I had never really had the chance to explore much of Poland. Despite growing up less than two hours from the border it wasn’t somewhere my parents ever took us. Returning with my man, Steve Storey, made it an even better experience for me as I was also getting the chance to see it through his eyes also.
Quite often I don’t notice the things that make my home the unique place it is. Old buildings, our culture, and a rich history that I sometimes take for granted became points of interest for me. I was able to become a tourist in a part of the world where I grew up.
Here is his story of our short road trip.
Crossing the border into Poland from Slovakia on a sunny spring evening, I was treated to the first signs of traveling through a country much different than my Canadian origins. There was much less city than I anticipated, even for a country with 40 times the population density of home. The road twisted and turned through villages seemingly left in the past, devoid of bright lights and garish neon signs. In place of chain restaurants, small cafes and unassuming bars filled the spaces between a charming patchwork of housing. It was the old world as I had imagined it. Soon I would be taking in it’s trails, sitting in it’s cafes, and enjoying beers from century’s old breweries.
My partner and guide, Justa Jeskova, was born and raised in Slovakia. Our plan was to take the back roads and visit relatively unknown riding areas to see more of this world unknown to myself. To Justa, the sights we would see were rather regular. Nothing of notice. To me, there were many moments of wonder. I’ve always been fascinated by the history of central and eastern Europe. I would excitedly point out what I thought was a castle but she would be quick to point out it was just a regular building. Being there was a chance to finally know the culture first hand and see it's history in person.
I really had no idea what to expect when we rolled into our first destination Bielsko Biala. Local legend states the town was originally founded around the 12th century when a group of bandits had built a castle to attack passing merchants.
They were eventually executed for their crimes. It was officially established over 7 centuries ago and since then has seen numerous marauders, invaders, and rulers throughout it’s storied history. Our intentions were much less nefarious. We were there in pursuit of two wheeled bliss in the surrounding Beskidy mountains, also known as the green lungs of Poland.
We arrived after dark to a deserted town save the few cars driving the narrow streets. We ditched the car for our bikes and ventured into the old city where we were treated to the vibrant nightlife of the main square and the apparent reason the remainder of the town seemed deserted.
Breweries, cafes, and bars spilled out onto the streets. Families played in the square while patrons drank and ate in the breweries and cafes in the centuries old square. Sitting amid medieval history with a town so animated made me question my vow to never live in a city.
Early next morning we headed out to Kozia Gora, a breakfast-less coffee-less affair. According to Justa, most places don’t open before 10 am because Europeans sit down to enjoy their food and drink. Our North American way of grabbing something on the way out to the trails this early wasn’t going to happen.
Onwards to the trails.
We arrived at the trails just after sunrise and the locals were already leaving the trails having completed their morning loops. It was a scene much different from home, the base was filled with tents and stands and their grills at the ready.
Each one serving polish cuisine consisting of a variety of polish sausage alongside bread and beer. Already seeing riders there we hastily got a few laps in and joined in on the fun. The mountain bike culture in Poland seemed steeped in revelry. Pedal your bikes and reward yourself with kielbasa and ‘piwo'. A post ride tradition I could easily get used to.
The idea of beer and traditional mountain food was not only limited to here. On another day in another area, we had pedalled for miles and almost 2000 feet of vertical up to some trails we found on a map. Nearing the top we noticed a gondola coming from the other side and further past that, a massive stone building with a bar and restaurant. It was perfect timing as a quick moving thunderstorm came upon us. We hung out with throngs of other mountain bikers, the majority clad in lycra. Their choice of ride also questionable at best, sporting tires barely wider than a road bike and brakes that looked like they were from communist times. It was obvious they were here for the beer and a smoke with a view. An odd sight to say the least but something I had noticed to be more commonplace with each passing day.
In Poland, biking was something that everyone did. It wasn’t solely practiced by those identifying as mountain bikers. There is still a core community of riders in Poland but there was also a large thriving community of people that shunned the norms of our North American tech obsessed scenes. The latest fads and wheel sizes meant nothing to this majority. They might not call themselves mountain bikers but they still rode and enjoyed themselves nonetheless. Probably even more so than many of us mountain bikers back home.
After descending back down through a deciduous forest still layered in the leaves from the previous fall we exited the trail at the top of another lift, and another cafe.
Everywhere we went in Poland there was a small business or cabin selling beer, cider, goulash, and snacks. This hut had views over the rest of Poland all the way to the Black sea, backdropped with a sun moving slowly towards the horizon. It made me realize why the Polish set up shops like this in the most random of places. They enjoy every aspect of the outdoors and regardless of ability level or fitness, they yearned to be outside in the mountains of their beloved country.
To celebrate a successful day’s outing with good food and drink. Not having the constraints of an overreaching Liquor Control Board, like we do back home, this was how you ended a day.
Sometimes it was even the reason to go out in the first place. Being able to drink where and when we wanted was something I did not take for granted.
Not wanting to only see the polished history of a country rich in story, we spent our last day taking a trip to Oświęcim. The town is home to the infamous German nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Having spent much of my life taking in as much as I can learn about WWII and it’s impact, it was something I couldn’t go home without seeing. Just walking up to the gates left us with a feeling in the pit of our stomachs. Barbed wire, guard towers, and smoke smokestacks all contributed to an uneasy air about the place. Each building inside the compound, all with a unique purpose and horror, would bring about sadness and anger of the atrocities that unfolded here.
It was about as far from a typical day of exploring a foreign country as one could get. The impact of seeing Auschwitz in person is far greater than watching, hearing, or reading of it’s history. It’s not something I would call a highlight of our trip since that would do a disservice to honouring those who died here.
However, of all the places I got to see, ride, or experience, Auschwitz was the most important. A heavy and emotional day but one not to be avoided.
After a few weeks of history, mountain biking, food, and beer, it was time to head back home.
Two weeks in eastern Europe taught me so much more than I ever would have thought. An area more known for it’s past decades of iron curtain rule was home to people passionate about getting outdoors and living life to it’s grandest. A lesson I would certainly take to heart. Enjoy your life, don’t take things too seriously, and celebrate good times at every opportunity.