Pedalling Across Poland

by Neal from Cycling Poland
Discover Poland Magazine
Published: March 2009

Looking for adventure and whatever comes your way? If you’ve ever dreamt of riding through unspoilt landscapes scattered with charming villages, medieval castles and spiritual sanctuaries, Poland could help you fulfil your dreams.

My first visit to with Poland was in 2001. I was on four-week cycling holiday and fell in love with the scenery, pace of life and old world charm. So much so that I moved here to Wroclaw, the capital of Lower Silesia.

Eight years later, the Polish countryside, brimming with awe-inspiring natural attractions, remarkable buildings, and mostly traffic-free roads still astounds me. It’s not only the beauty of the Sudeten Mountains, their rolling green and yellow foothills, the deep blue lakes, the Odra River, and the Klodzko Valley that fill your senses with unique sights, sounds, and colours. It’s also the numerous castles (ruined and renovated) to explore, the Cistercian monasteries for contemplation, the historical churches of peace, the rejuvenating health spas, plus the Gothic and Baroque treasures of a country which is largely untouched by tourism.

Poland is sure to satisfy your desire for adventure, relaxation, exploration, and surprise. And I can’t think of a better way to experience Poland than by bike. An 83-year-old Polish cyclist once told me: ‘If you are going for a long ride with others, make sure there is an interesting destination or highlight or two along the way.’ I’ve provided just three of the unmissable ones below.

The Great Masurian Lakes

The Great Masurian Lakes is an area of renowned beauty. It’s a landscape of gentle hills, cool lakes, rustic farmhouses, quiet villages, and swathes of tranquil forest.

In addition to these natural wonders, you can explore the vestiges of Teutonic, Prussian, German and Polish architectural legacies. The infamous ‘Wolf’s Lair’ – Hitler’s main headquarters – is one of the more surprising highlights. In the tiny hamlet of Gierloz there is the eerie sight of 18 hectares of a partially-destroyed Nazi complex. Hitler’s series of bunkers with 2.5m thick walls were designed to blend in with the landscape of idyllic forests and lakes.

The scenery is breathtaking and the cycling is superb as we twist and turn through the unspoiled ‘green lungs’ of Poland which are rich in blackberries, raspberries, wild strawberries and mushrooms. There are many black storks, eagles and snipes, and if you keep your eyes peeled you may even see lynx, elk, stag, wolf, fox or wild boar!

On the way to Mikolajki, we pass through the village of Gizycko and stop for a closer look at the 19th century Boyen Fortress, one of a network of 14 forts which comprise the Baltic Fort Route.

Turning our handlebars south for 50km of rivers, lakes, marshes and wildlife, we head for the Luknajno Reserve where Europe’s largest community of wild swans live. If you keep an eye out you may also see a ‘tarpan’ which is the cousin of the now extinct wild horse.

The land of 3000 lakes and the wildlife, built history, and warm people leave us with an indelible impression of the natural, historical, and cultural significance of a region which is virtually unknown. The Masurian Lakes does ‘indelible’ very well.

Gdansk, the Baltic Sea and the Teutonic Knights

Gdańsk, home of the Solidarity movement, once a member of the Hanseatic League, is the largest city of the Kashubian ethnic group. It’s come a long way from its origins as a fishing village in the 9th century and is now the jewel of a region which ranges from the sand dunes of Slowinski National Park to the ancient shores of the Vistula River and the tranquility of the Zarnowieckie Lake.

Add the gothic old town of Toruń, the intact fortified medieval walls of Chelmno, the 15th century Basilica in Pelplin, and the magnificent Malbork Castle into the mix and you have a trail of amazing memories, unforgettable cycling, and remarkable sights to discover.

Where better to start your adventure than in Hel? The Hel Peninsula is a sliver of sand which stretches some 35kms to the west of Gdansk. The timeless Kashubian town of Hel is not all fire and brimstone; with the sea breeze at your back, and the scent and the sound of the sea, you just can’t help but relax.

We veer away from the coast and head south into the heart of the Pomerania region. We are in the medieval lands of the Teutonic Knights and traces of their existence are scattered throughout. An extraordinary example of the Teutonic legacy is the 14th century castle in Bytow.

Next, we visit the stunning medieval town of Chelmno; whose fortified walls, five Gothic cathedrals, and Renaissance town hall must have been designed to impress.

The Hanseatic port of Toruń is a special highlight. A Slavic settlement since 1100 BC, a Teutonic outpost since the 13th century, the birthplace of Nicolas Copernicus in the 15th century, and UNESCO World Heritage listed in the 20th century, Toruń will captivate you with its Gothic charm and off-the-beaten-track character.

Another astonishing day beckons as we head towards the majesty of Malbork Castle. This colossal fortified castle is Europe’s largest Gothic fortress. We spend a few hours exploring its multiple defensive walls, labyrinth of rooms and chambers, and exquisite architectural detail and decoration. The late afternoon sun on the 600-year-old red brickwork is indescribable.

UNESCO highlights in Lower Silesia

The region of Lower Silesia is one of largely unrecognized beauty. The region’s capital, Wroclaw, is replete with Gothic churches, Flemish-style Renaissance mansions, Viennese Baroque palaces and chapels, tranquil parks, gardens, rivers and a vibrant cultural scene.

Outside Wroclaw you enter the region’s playground. The gently rolling landscape is full of ponds, lakes, rivers, open farmlands, dense forests, rugged mountains and unspoiled villages. The cycling is superb, the scenery is stunning, and the people are warm, generous and welcoming.

Our first stop after leaving Wroclaw is in Olesnica, a beautiful town that was established as part of the Amber Trail in the 13th century. Today it is home to a unique complex of the Princes Castle, the Basilica of St. John the Apostle and the Wrocław Gate Tower.

Tracing our way along serene country lanes towards the peaceful village of Poreby, we stop in a small village with an even smaller shop where we are spontaneously treated to a large bottle of crystal-clear fluid courtesy of a local. We spend a wonderful afternoon talking about his ‘bike passport’. He bought a small notebook in the 80s and has cycled some 10,000kms since. His book is a conglomeration of petrol station stamps, passport control stamps, tourist attraction stamps… you get the picture. After bidding farewell (Czesc!) we endure a weaving journey of a few hundred meters to a hearty dinner and the comfortable beds of a local agro-tourism farm.

We’re smack bang in the middle of the Milicz Lakes District, home to 13 amphibian species, 250 bird species and 44 different mammals. In the picturesque town of Trzebnica we spend the morning exploring its long and distinguished history. The main attraction is the Cistercian  Convent, established in 1202 by Saint Jadwiga (St Hedwig).

We follow the Odra River and head for Wolow, residence of the Silesian Piast Dukes and birthplace of Poland’s first cosmonaut. The cosmonaut’s test plane stands proudly on a plinth in the town’s centre.

The village of Lubiaz signals a change in perspective. It rests in the shadow of a massive 12th century Cistercian  Abbey, which ranks as the largest monastic complex in central Europe. It survived WWII because high-ranking German officers treated it as their home. Retreating in the face of the Russian advance the Germans blew up the underground network of rooms and tunnels, which led to rumours of a biological weapons laboratory and a nuclear research facility.

The lower Sudety foothills greet us as we arrive in the serene town of Jawor, next to one of the UNESCO-listed Churches of Peace, one of the the most exceptional monuments in Lower Silesia. The church is over 43.5m long, 14m wide and 15.7m high and not one nail was used in its construction. It seats 5,500 and was constructed by Breslau (Wroclaw) architect Albrecht von Saebisch in 1655. The 200 paintings inside were painted by Georg Flegel in 1671–1681.

Cycling through pristine forests, another immense monument, Castle Ksiaz, comes into view. Ksiaz is one of the best preserved castles in Lower Silesia and the largest hilltop fortress in Poland. We spend a few hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the majestic complex. There is a fascinating escorted ascent to the top of the main tower, where the guide points out the location from which V2 rockets were fired on England during WWII.

Next stop is the fortress town of Swidnica, and the other surviving UNESCO Church of Peace. The Sleza mountain summons us. The mountain was used for pagan worship in Celtic times and was later settled by an unknown Slav tribe (who named the mountain and Silesia itself). Situated on its slopes are several ancient sculptures and carvings whose origins and symbolism are not known.

We’ve come full circle and I highly recommend taking another look around Wroclaw. Wroclaw is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It will stay in your heart and live in your memory.

Poland is a diverse country with a difficult history. Yet, there is a creativity, a sense of pride, and a pervading optimism running through its people and landscapes. Visiting any of the regions above is captivating; visiting all three is absolutely exquisite. Take your pick, take your adventurous spirit, but above all take your time… it’s important to slow down and live the life of Poland.

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