Itinerary, or lack of

Beforehand, my wife Eszter and I realised we could not make too many advance plans. As became apparent, the bigger issues centred not so much on the road and tourism but rather more on the kids, campsites and catering on a hands-on day-to-day basis, before anything else. So we ended up doing what we could, there and then.

But in order to overcome prior uncertainties, there is an informality about the camping lifestyle that worked very well for us. Casual camp staff and liberal regulations allowed us to be more free-spirited as we went from one place to another without too much fuss. This was the easy part, as well as being cheaper than hotels. From a budget point of view, we saved a fortune.

Despite the odd mosquito buzzing inside the tent, the conditions excelled. The roads were very good, the scenery even better. Weather was mild. Sharing on-site facilities with other campers was basically fine because they were easy to get on with, as many were much like us.

It is all something of a blur to recall, because so much happened. Not that it matters, as this character-building venture gave us a profound sense of well-being. We will remember this remarkable occasion for years to come. Not only were we discovering Poland en masse for the first time but were discovering more about ourselves, our abilities. At the same time, we were picking up a greater sense of the outdoor life away from modern-day consumer culture and mainstream materialism, in our own decisive ways.

Ice-cream museums, please

As you can imagine, travelling with three youngish children and finding ways to please them was challenging. Although we comprised, we occasionally argued. But pizza, cake and ice-cream parlours often paved the way wherever we went. Eszter and I finally saw something cultural and interesting, while at the end of the line, for those still young, the rewards finally flourished – as well as for those feeling slightly older and more bewildered than before.

But one thing was for sure, there was no diversion from the domestic routines that always came to attention day and night, with tourism somewhere in between. So I may as well apologise now for my thinner than usual accounts of the main highlights, as this holiday was more about us getting by than anything else.

Journey

It was a 500-kilometre drive from Budapest to our first stop in southern Poland, across Slovakia to the sandy Bledowska Desert region, between Katowice and Czestochowa. The first impression was how green and cool this region is. Although an obvious dry terrain, it was remarkable to see many pine trees flourishing in these particular conditions as well as they do everywhere else.

After a visit to the scenic Ogrodzieniec Castle and having an unpredicted walk around the nearby desert, our next destination took us to Czestochowa. This is a splendid city, home to the Jasna Góra Monastery, and attracts many tourists and pilgrims alike to this grand spiritual shrine.

Now we were finally becoming more “with it”, and getting used to the tent and the temperaments. After our brief stay in this immediate area we repacked and headed westwards to Wroclaw via Tarnowskie Góry, an underground water management dolomite system situated in a forest. Later that day we arrived unannounced at our next campsite, and much to our surprise and delight there was a swimming pool, a real bonus.

The next day we visited the Ksiaz Castle (pictured below), a picturesque heritage site and architectural gem made up of Gothic, Baroque and Rococo styles, located in the Walbrzyski foothills. Rounding off that particular day we came across the spectacular black-and-white Kosciol Pokoju (Church of Peace), Europe's largest Baroque and timber-framed church, in a small town called Swidnica.


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Wroclaw city is a marvel. Apart from walking around the highly captivating city centre, it was the St. Elizabeth's Gothic church with its distinct and impressive 91-metre tall tower that was the main feature. We look forward to seeing much more on the return we are sure to make.

Our first week passed before we knew it. A yearning for the coastline beckoned, so once again the tent was dried out and rolled. The car was becoming increasingly messy but both it and we handled a 400-kilometre drive through the breezy countryside, finally arriving at the enticing medieval town of Torun. Entering this serene, northerly place in the evening at the height of summer, there was plenty of daylight left for exploring.

The next day, with no further ado, we finally reached the Gdansk region, for which we had been headed. By now we were feeling weary from our travels and we stayed for longer than planned by the coast, which was a real novelty. It was time for a bracing dip in the Baltic Sea, warmer than expected, perhaps due to global warming, but obviously chillier than the River Danube and Lake Balaton. A long, impressive line of pine trees stands strategically placed along the coastline as far as the eye can see, clearly as windbreaks. The distinct sound of the Baltic waves reverberated non-stop.

To understand more about Poland, a visit to Gdansk is paramount. This distinguished city, now beautifully restored, is perhaps most famed for its Solidarity movement in the 1980s, as clearly emphasised when there. The informative Solidarity Museum documents the shipyard protests led by local hero Lech Walesa, who alongside his fellow dockers overcame the oppressiveness of the communist grip and finally led to victory for the nation. We made sure to have a close look at the old town, similar in vein to downtown Lviv in Ukraine, as children and tea shops allowed.

Although we attempted another swim, chillier winds deterred us. Instead, nearby was the distinctly red-bricked Malbork Castle. It was a relaxing day for us all and our second week was almost up.

Leaving the built-up Gdansk region, we came to the scenic and blissful Mazurskie Polish lake district. This was my favourite landmark, a very tranquil region surrounded by lush forests and lakes. Our base was a very pleasant, comfortable, peaceful and atmospheric pioneers’ campsite, surrounded by glorious scenery.

We took a boat-ride, similar to what's in store at Lake Balaton but obviously without the heat. And then a last-minute impulse bought Lithuania into our line of sight, as the border was very near. Once again we made our way eastwards to what was, still within living memory for some, an inhospitable former Soviet frontier line that has miraculously bloomed into an open, welcoming border without restrictions. Finally, we arrived in Vilnius and found a campsite nearby.

Vilnius is an exquisite capital, filled with enchanting churches and rich, colourful landmarks that really set the senses alight. I had been here once before, and Vilnius today is unrecognisable as compared to then for similar reasons to the transition at the border crossing.

We were awe at the splendour of the St. Nicholas Gate (or Old City Gate - pictured below) and its spiritual grace, as well as the quaint alleyways and majestic tower tops. But there was no escape from the 1300-kilometre return journey ahead of us, and after a visit to the rustic and charming outdoor folk museum and to Trakai Castle, we took our leave 300 kilometres south-westwards beyond the Polish border to Bialystok.


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This intriguing town half-way between Vilnius and Warsaw holds the extraordinary Branicki Palace and gardens resembling a grand château. After exploring this imperial wonder, we settled into yet another campsite. The physical stamina and the sheer mass of land we had covered became a priceless bond for us all. The following day the highway again beckoned, this time directly southwards along the entire stretch of eastern Poland, with Belarus and Ukraine within easy reach.

Lack of time meant only a brief stop at Lublin, but how we all wished to have stayed longer at this entrancing place with similar echoes to Prague.

A short while later we were back on the road, this time to Zakopane, to see the Polish Tatra mountain ranges, in particular the Morskie Oko, Poland's most famous lake, surrounded by mountain and pine forests. Although this was fabulous in every sense, camping fatigue had begun to set in, although we had all mastered the art and benefitted greatly by it.

At this late stage of our journey, apart from taking in the odd, stray wooden churches while en route, we had run out of time for sight-seeing anyway and had to make haste. It was a defining end to what was a remarkable holiday as we drove away to prepare for school and return to our everyday life and routines.


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The musical whirls of Abba, The Doors and K-Pop finally got us to the Slovak border. A less demanding drive the next day, passing Kosice, the Hungarian border and Miskolc, saw us comfortably back to base in Budapest. Familiar duties and laundry awaited attention.

Conclusions

Independent camping and tourism in Poland and beyond was exhilarating. The further we went, the better it got. By the time we reached our furthest points of Gdansk and Vilnius, we instinctively knew this mind-over-matter accomplishment had been achieved, regardless of how we returned.

The only “complaint” we had was the children’s “There are too many museums and castles and not enough cafes”. But I am sure they will in time appreciate the efforts we made, reflect on this experience and make an honorary pilgrimage. Surely after so many fond memories we will return, knowing Poland is a wonderful place, and we will simply and eloquently pick up again where we all left off last time. Until then, further research about these landmarks and any we missed is required.

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