in Lodz, Przemeck and his family had been urging me to get going so as to avoid the bitter winter weather and had told me that Hungary would have a milder climate. Now Piotr was almost pushing me out for the same reasons. we sat for my last night wiht them, poring over maps and he showed me a cycle path that would take me across the low end of the Tatra mountains and out of Poland into Slovakia.
laughing, his parting pledge was “ and if you are under 3 feet of snow, we will come for you!”
I had one final evening in town with Sir Galahad, trying to cram at least another week of all the most intriguing new-found fascinations of back-street Kracow into just a few last decadent hours.
After wandering around, lost again amongst the ancient cobbles, faded cafes and bars and little secret squares, I was reeled in by delicious wafts of coffee and sickly sweet cocoa.
I nearly succumbed to a queasy stupor, followed by an immense sugar hit induced by the thickest molten chocolate imaginable and then not quite content with that, slid without thinking into in a noisily packed, modern cocktail bar. It was dark and smokey and the cocktail menu was fabulous. (fortunately for my pocket, I can usually only manage one. That night i think i had 3!)
From the depths of a soft, sink-into leather armchair and in my advancing semi-coma, i seemed to be floating in a surreal black corridor delineated by hallucinogenic, exotically coloured fluorescent light bulbs. . little suspended baubles on invisible wires that crossed the space of the bar, dividing it at tipsy angles and giving the sense of sheer psychedelia. ( if ever I take drugs, I hope it would be like this)
The heaving crush of scented young, marvellously sexy party goers, with erotic tangles of bare limbs, swelling cleavages and tight fitting buttocks seemed to add to my sense of unworldly detachment. I was grateful for being small and mostly invisible in such glamorous company, sunk as i was in the low chair and overcome with heat, not just due to my shabby old cycling waterproofs.
I was comfortably intoxicated by the pretty luminous orbs and probably a little drunk by now. I do remember thinking that I as would be embarking on a long ride the next day and needed to be in good form, perhaps this late night trip into sensory excesses was unwise.
Then through the woozy lights, my focus shifted slightly to the wide screen that was just beyond the zone of the little lanterns. I had been so happy in my boozy fog, where nothing had any reality and all was soft and cosy that I experienced a momentary insight into just how easy it could be to escape into a continual state of inebriation. It was such a sobering thought that I think this is what cleared my vision. All at once, in sharp focus, I was enlightened as to what was unravelling on the huge screen. At at least twice real life size, full on sex was being very literally enacted in public. No detail spared. And nobody in the crammed bar seemed to be taking the slightest notice. Mind you, they were probably absorbed in their own luscious melt. I was truly amazed. It was a taste of things to come. These late night explicit sex scenes were almost the first thing that would come on to any screen whenever I stayed in accommodation that offered a television in the room…. the little bobbing lights were far more sensual.
I am not sure which of us, my legs or my wheels, found the way back to the hostel, and I have no idea how I managed to re-pack my bags let alone include a bit of sleep, but up I got at 7 am and was on the road by 8.30 without a trace of a hangover and feeling as strong and fresh as ever.
Now I was over heating for completely different reasons. For the first time I was beginning to encounter long, sharper hills and the recent drop in temperature to near freezing was very welcome. I would very soon be at the Slovakian border. In the changing terrain, a new routine took shape of taking off layers and then stopping at the summit to replace them and zip up for long, chilly descents. The miraculous appearance of a bar as the roads levelled out would see me scurrying in with teeth chattering for a hot goulash, coffee and brandy. The weather was again perfect and my route took me on what was described as the most beautiful road in Poland. It lived up to all expectations. Distant mountains and low lying green green foothills. Alpine, chalet style houses with neat church spires. I passed a magnificent wooden church, blackened with age but with a newly replaced copper roof which sparkled and shone gorgeously amongst the autumn leaves and against an ever-blue sky.
After slogging up an especially steep, long hill on foot, muttering darkly, twenty paces at a time, with stops to catch my breath, an elderly dishevelled man shambled towards me and without a word solemnly shook my hand. I was trying to look tough and strong but my gasping collapse over the handle bars gave the game away. I realised I was again carrying far too much weight. It was a frequent worry but surely by now I could let my tent and cooking equipment go? I was hardly going to be camping in sub zero temperatures and up until now I had had no difficulty in finding inexpensive hostels or rooms. I vowed to send as much kit home at the next possible opportunity.
This weekend was all souls weekend. Poland becomes a teeming mass of movement as people head for their home towns. At every cemetery a whole industry springs to life. Roadside stalls selling flowers, candles, lanterns, and decorations spring up everywhere and great armies of cleaners and sweepers arrive with their laughter and tears to polish and restore the family tombstones to pristine condition. I had been warned that the roads would be more than usually hazardous, so I carefully planned to stop for 2 days in Sczcawnica.
Yet again my heart strings were pulled. Sczcawnica is a small, very popular but unspoilt skiing resort nestling amongst curious high limestone, cone-shaped peaks. The white rocks a perfect back drop to the great beeches and pines that soar upwards from the milky green river as it flows through the valley. I had an exquisite ride along the cycle path that was to lead me out of Poland, just as Piotr had said. Such a peaceful sun-washed day with the smell of pine trees and the novelty of rolling quietly on a deep bed of pine needles. The path rose gently until I was high above the river. A bright red canoe in the water and the urge to keep glancing up into the tree tops were nearly my undoing. I just managed to skirt around a sharp-ended, throat level log without pitching the bike or me over the cliff and down into the river below. These little wake-up calls were fortunately infrequent. I was usually very focussed on the job.
That afternoon and evening, the townspeople processed to the cemetery, led by the priest in his robes and followed by a bobbing sea of lanterns held by the townspeople and their families. All generations from babies to unsteady elders and grandparents in one huge family of remembrance for their departed loved ones. A time for recollection.
One elderly woman caught my attention.
Her black headscarf and thin coat taut over the heaped up shoulders made a careworn apex above the broad lumpy hips widening downwards to thickened ankles at the base, just visible beneath the hem of her long black skirt. Puffy feet squeezed into worn shoes. A notchy, jerking gait on painful joints; pauses for breath and a tired heart.
Not so very long ago diminutive women such as this, with tears streaming down their cheeks held aloft cloths in bowls of water. Not to wash the family grave, but for the young men to grab as they ran past to cover their faces against tear gas during the Gdansk demonstrations.
They lingered at the gravesides as the sun set and their comforting chatter drifted across the river. The tangible heart of Poland beating in loving unison.
In the dining room of my old style hotel was a lovely old grand piano. The charming waiting staff were so happy that someone could play. Pachulski ( a Polish composer ) in Poland on Remembrance Day. How natural. My mother had given this exquisitely expressive piece of music to me in my 11th year not long before she died. I have grown up with this piece and cut my emotional teeth on it, you could say. It is a wistful outpouring of love and grief and radiates solace over just 3 short minutes. It poignantly matched the atmosphere of the day and was a moment for my own thanksgiving, bringing my Mother close and offering a farewell blessing of gratitude to Poland. Touching back into the beauty of the last 2 months and pressing against the familiar ache of loss.
How I came to love being in Poland. In one of my illustrations, there is a little cartoon of me cycling with a heart shaped balloon trailing high above and behind with “Poland I love you” childishly in a little thought bubble.
Yes, it was time to leave.