Once again, I’m at Coffee Inn with Monika and she’s studying for a tour to the Silesian Lowlands of Poland. This is a tour she’s created and done a few times in the past, and it’s happening a week or so before school starts so I figure it’s safe to ask if I can go along. After a few minutes, she agrees. Now, sure, these tours are open to the public, but as she’s a friend, it’s like asking if you can visit at work so I want to make sure everything is cool.
Here’s the thing: I like traveling with Monika. We’ve done a number of cool one day trips and even a weekend trip to Finland to ride roller coasters (which took place, unfortunately, before I started blogging). With all of these trips, even the group trip to Riga, she wasn’t leading the tour. Mostly it was just her and I, so we could talk, laugh, stop when we wanted, whatever. This was going to be something different as I was getting onto a bus with 33 other people, all of whom spoke Lithuanian, and Monika was the boss.
And so it happened, at 5 in the morning on a chilly Friday (yes, I wore shorts and sandals), I found myself down at the Castle, taking the pair of seats next to the back stairs (limited leg room) and heading off to parts unknown.
Once the sun came up and we were well under way, Monika started her spiel. This was new for me. Last time we’d been on a road trip I was the one doing the announcer voice while reading tourist information. Here, it was all her and she wasn’t reading! She knew this stuff cold! (at least I assume she knew it cold because I couldn’t understand a word of it, all I knew was she spoke with poise and confidence). She seemed to be in her element. All the hours of watching her at CI, listening to Elvis Presley (Elvis was what she listened to for studying Poland) were paying off here. She would talk about the cities we passed through (like Warsaw) and tell a bit about the history of the landscape. I knew some of this from her research but it was great to see the places in person.
A long bus ride later (after a stop for lunch in a very Polish roadside truck stop) we arrived in Wrocław (pronounced Vratslaav) and the first of our five destinations. We were certainly planning a lot for a trip of less than 72 hours. The bus parked on the old town island and we wandered around, seeing
some great old churches, cathedrals and a wonderful bridge. My general MO for the day was to walk with Monika after she’d said her piece (in Lithuanian) to the rest of the group so I could catch up on the important stuff. I didn’t need the whole story, just what I should be looking at.
Leaving the old town, we saw a few more cool cultural sights and then came the attraction I was most looking forward to: The Dwarfs. The Dwarfs started as a symbol of the Orange-Alternative, which was a protest movement which painted dwarfs over areas which had been repainted to cover anti-Communist graffiti. Then, in 2001, a statue of a dwarf was erected to commemorate the good fight which had started in Wrocław. In 2005, a couple more were unveiled. Not long after that, there were more and more showing up, until today, there are more than 300, representing all sorts of occupations and walks of life, and they are a big part of the tourism for the city. We spotted a bunch as a group and then, during free time, Monika and I went and saw even more.
By this point, it was getting dark and we’d all had a long day so we headed back to the hotel. We had a relatively early morning on Saturday.
Saturday morning we all met up in the hotel restaurant for breakfast before piling onto the bus for a ten minute ride to the center of Swidnica. A brief tour of the heart of the city then a short, guided walk led us to the one of the three Churches of Peace. You can read the whole story for yourself, but the upshot is that the Lutheran community was given limitations and then, working within those, created some of the most beautiful (UNESCO Heritage), largest “timber-framed” churches in Europe.
It was also on this walk I noticed something else. While the tourists had been friendly on Friday, it wasn’t until Saturday, after we had all broken bread together, that they coalesced into a group. Suddenly, they were more interactive, asking questions, laughing and joining in. It became a communal experience. This was my first time on a bus tour like this and I could definitely see the appeal now.
We left Swidnica for Kłodzko, home of a really cool bridge, an awesome fortress and many, many kilometers of underground passages. The fortress, one of the largest in Poland, was built on the site of
a stronghold from the 9th century but it wasn’t until the 18c or so when they decided to build a series of fortification tunnels to help protect the place from invaders coming in over the flats (the other side had a huge granite hill as a natural defense). And as part of the tour, we explored about a kilometer of these tunnels, including one pitch dark and only about 50cm tall (if you weren’t going to duck walk the 15 meters you’d have to crawl on all fours).
A quick, rainy lunch in Kudowa-Zdrój, and we were off to Stołowe Mountains to climb Szczeliniec Wielki (which, while it does in fact reach 919 meters in height, since we start at around 750 meters, the 170 meter climb isn’t nearly as impressive as I thought it was upon originally coming down). There are about 700 steps to the midway point, where if you want to continue into the “labyrinth” you have to pay extra. It’s totally worth it! Sure, the view before there is great, but on the pay side there’s all sorts of amazing rock formations and a path which leads you through some precarious spots (like The Devil’s Kitchen, which leads, naturally, directly to “Hell”) and one spot which gets incredibly narrow. So narrow, in fact, people on past tours have gotten stuck. I’d heard about it, knew it was coming, and still was taken by surprise when it finally showed up. Then I just giggled as the rest of the group and I made our way through. The last view point, before our descent, overlooked the village where the bus was parked and we were buzzed by a drone.
We made it down (passing a Dinosaur land of some sort which Monika wouldn’t let me go into so I took pictures over the fence) then back to the hotel (through a severe rainstorm and a slight detour as the bus took some roads not bus appropriate) and tucked up in bed ready for another day of sight seeing.
Sunday morning we packed up and headed out for a morning tour of Książ Castle. Like our tour of the fortress the day before, our tour was guided in English with Monika translating into Lithuanian as we went. The fortress guide was used to this and would stop appropriately so the translation could be done easily. Not so much with the Castle guide. This little pistol of a woman was great. As a native speaker, I loved listening to her ramble about whatever tidbits of information popped into her head at any given moment, her narration meandering as we moved from room to room. The flip side of this, of course, was watching Monika go above and beyond as she kept up with the translation, letting those in our group who didn’t speak English in on the guide’s various stories and tales.
Full disclosure, I didn’t help matters when, at one point, I was confused as to our location and asked where we were on a map she was showing us. In my defense, I swear I thought she’d just point. I should have known this would be a three minute discourse on the history of that part of the structure (which was interesting, but still). Monika did give me the evil eye and told me “no more questions!”
The tour finished, we wandered a bit before getting back on the bus for another long ride back home. I was able to read four books (two for fun, two for work) on the trip as well as reaffirm my dislike of Adam Sandler when we watched a film of his on the bus.
Overall, it was an amazing trip. It was exciting to see Monika in action. Honestly, it’s always cool to see your friends succeed and here, she was absolutely in her element (not a bad review in the house). If invited, I would gladly go again somewhere else with her as a guide (even more so as a friend).