August 29, 2003 - Baron Sandomeirski, Poland 164km, 99 miles **

The two biggest unexpected pleasures, location wise, on the europe2003 ride have been Toledo and now Krakow. Smaller unanticipated pleasures include Merida, Guadalupe, the ride into Sitges, Nabarrone and Besancon – and of course there have been and will be expected ones… But why Krakow?* Rather than distract from the story, I’m listing some of the city’s features at the end of the update – things that contribute to the fact that UNESCO to name Krakow as a World Heritage Site as one of the 12 most precious places in the world (from their tourist book – someone should check this out.)

We stayed at the Polski Hotel, just inside the Barbicon (remaining part of the city’s 500 year old fortress walls) on the north side of the central area. Here are photos of the hotel (my window tilted open just above entrance), the painted art sale outside the door, and the tower at the north entrance to the central city.

Our hotel was once three townhouses at the north entrance. They were bought by the Pod Biaym Orem family in 1913, who converted the townhouses into the hotel, and somehow have maintained (or gotten back) ownership after a couple of World Wars and an extended period of communism. It was a comfortable *** place to stay.

Charlie went to Auschwitz (see update from the end of part II) while I got the bikes from Bikershop. When he came back we went to the Weilczka Salt Mines south of town. After 1,000 years of continuous salt mining, this closed in 1996. It’s 9 levels going from 300 to 1,000 feet below the surface, with 3,000 chambers and over 300km of shafts. You walk down, walk around for 3 hours, and take an elevator back up. Here’s Charlie on the 300+ foot of stairs descent.

They’ve been giving tours for a few hundred years here. In various places a few hundred feet underground has a large church, a huge auditorium, a restaurant, and numerous sculptures and chapels made by the miners over the centuries. Here’s one of those sculptures.

There’s a story about a princess and a ring and salt here, but I’d botch it (we heard a dozen or more legends and tales on the tour) so if you want to hear it, come take the tour yourself.. Meanwhile, we took a taxi back to the hotel, had dinner and planned a 6:30a wake up and 7a departure, which we almost achieved. The pouring rain (no thunder) kept me awake and concerned much of the night.

BACK TO BIKE RIDING: Heading east out of town we first got lost east of Nova Huta (giant communist era industrial complex next to Krakow, and then got lost (kind of, we didn’t know where we were, but we kept going the right direction) again on a road that went from paved to patches to dirt. Here’s Charlie on that road – the first action shot of the trip.

We wound our way east, then northeast along the Wisla River (the Mississippi of Poland). All the roads were two-lane without shoulders, of varying quality. An example:

This was a unique day of riding. We didn’t have breakfast or lunch, and rode almost 100 miles with only one 15 minute sit down break. We had a strong (20mph) tail/crosswind pushing what looked like a big storm toward us, so we just kept going, averaging almost 19mph for the day. Here’s CR and me at 111 km (68 miles) at our only break.

I started getting a bit fatigued at this point, and took a few more pictures. The next one is of a family picking potatoes (plural has an e, Dan) on their farm, followed by a picture of a statue of Mary next to a typical home.

We passed dozens, maybe more than a hundred, religious statues along the road – most of them impressive. This country is 95% Catholic, and it shows. The houses are surprisingly nice out in the country, just like the one above. Almost all of them display flowers. This country is more prosperous than I thought. (…and everything’s about half price here)

We also passed by a monument with a propeller dedicated to the crew of a RAF plan shot down in April 1944 by German artillery. They “sanctified the ground with their blood”. (I have a close up of the plaque with the crew’s names, if you’re interested.)

Finally, with dying legs but no rain, we made it to the Baronow Sandomierski castle grounds around 1:30P, checked into our rooms, showered and wslkrf over to the castle for lunch. Here’s Charlie on the way.

This is a couple hundred year old structure, more a giant square chateau with an inner courtyard than an actual castle. It’s on 22 hectares and you can rent one of 6 rooms in the castle (we tried) or stay in the maybe 30 room hotel on the grounds. In any case, it’s the nicest place around for many miles.

We couldn’t get the rooms in the castle because there are (as I write this at 10:06PM local time) three simultaneous weddings going on here. They have a bunch of cannons from different eras about, and every time a bride shows up, one of them goes off, terrifying (the first time) otherwise intrepid guests and (always) every car alarm within 500 feet. The drunken young men are out singing Polish songs as I write, much as they might behave in a US wedding.

That’s it, Day 1 of Europe 2003, part III. 2 days to Belarus.

(Disclaimer: I don’t have time to check edit or proof read, so these are always first drafts. My apologies for anything that irritates you, in advance.)

Some cool things about Crakow. It has a 900 year heritage, most of the time as the home of the Kings of Poland (one of which was the brother of the King of Sweden, who attacked and burned the castle in the 13th century). For 130 years prior to WWI it was divided up between Germany, Austria and Russia. And of course, it was involved in many other wars, most notably WWII – but through it all, for many centuries, it was never destroyed in a war – unlike virtually every other city in Europe. This gives it a unique look and feel. Combined with the Main Market Square, St. Mary’s cathedral, the Royal Walk, the Barbicon (fortress wall), Jagielonian University (one of 3 oldest in Europe), the museums, the poets, the history (e.g. Corpernicus), the café lifestyle and Wawel Castle in the city; Auschwitz, the Weilczka Salt Mines and Nova Huta outside the city.

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