Friday, June 22, 2012

EuroCycle 2012: Poland (part 2)

19 - 21 June 2012
  • Poznan - Wolsztyn: 92km
  • Wolsztyn - Zielona Gora: 65km
  • Zielona Gora - Cottbus (GER): 112km
The morning after Ireland's final match in Euro 2012, I took down my tent, loaded up my bike and started my journey home. As fun as the preceding twelve days had been, I was sort of glad that the party was over. It had been hectic and unhealthy, so I was happy to get back on my bike and to head off on my own into the Polish countryside.

The previous day I had bought a map of Germany. Its eastern and western margins contained Poznan and Luxembourg respectively, so I drew a line between the two and my plan was to stay as close to that line as possible.

After meeting many young Poles in the big cities of Poznan and Gdansk who were helpful, friendly and good English speakers, it was interesting for me to be back in rural Poland. On quiet country roads and in villages I often came across older people who looked at me with surprise but kept their distance. People were helpful if I asked directions but, unlike in other countries, they generally wouldn't approach me even when I was stopped at a junction studying my map. I can only guess that their communist past taught people not to ask questions or get involved with strangers.

I enjoyed my peaceful last couple of days in Poland, especially relaxing by the lake in Wolsztyn watching the sunset. Three weeks after cycling off the ferry from Sweden, I left Poland by cycling into Germany. It had been a great, and very varied, three weeks.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Euro2012: Poland

Poznan, Gdansk, Poznan; POLAND: 7 - 19 June 2012
"What? You've cycled here to Poland for Euro 2012? Wow, you must be a big football fan?"

"Well, no not really."

"Oh, so then you are big into cycling?

"Well, no. I've never done a big cycle trip before and I only bought this bike a few days before starting out."

"Okay ... Are you mad?!"

Apart from repeatedly having the above conversation, my time in Poland during Euro 2012 was mainly spent socialising and singing; and not just Irish football songs ("Stand Up for the Boys in Green", "We all dream of a team of Gary Breens", etc etc etc.) but Polish songs too. That Irish fans used to sing "Polska Biało-Czerwoni / Poland, the White and Red" was just one of the reasons why most of the locals seemed so enamored with us. Irish-Polish relations were also helped by the fact that the Irish really are great fans. The centers of Poznan and Gdansk/Sopot were constantly packed with good-natured revellers in the days building up to Ireland's matches. It was incredible.
I arrived in Poland without match tickets or booked accommodation, but it all worked out. I found space at campsites, which were good craic, although I felt sorry for the small number of non-Irish campers due to the late night sessions and because every morning Irish fans were to be found all over the place in varying degrees of health.
It seemed that not many Irish fans came to Poland with spare tickets, so unfortunately I had to turn to touts. Whilst I wasn't prepared to pay the €200 - €250 asking price for the Ireland v. Spain match (which I watched on the big screen in the packed Fanzone), I paid €100 and €75 for a ticket to the games against Croatia and Italy respectively (face value for both was €70). Given the amazing atmosphere in the lead-up, especially for the opening game against Croatia, I was delighted to get a ticket.
In the stadium comedian Karl Spain was part of the pre-match build-up, which included a surprisingly impressive "mini opening ceremony" before each game.
Unfortunately, while all else was perfect, Ireland's performances and results were poor. Indeed, apart from the fact that Ireland lost all three of its matches, everything about being in Poland during Euro 2012 was great; from the friendly Polish people and their rocking cities to being proudly part of that amazing spectacle that is Irish fans abroad. And I even got to see up-close Ireland's President Michael D. Higgins.
So even though I'm not a big soccer fan, being at Euro 2012 was a great experience and I'm delighted that I had the opportunity to be there.

Friday, June 8, 2012

EuroCycle 2012: Poland (part 1)

1 - 7 June 2012
  • Gdynia to Gdansk via Sopot: 47km
  • Rest day Gdansk
  • Gdansk to Malbork: 67km
  • Malbork to Grudziadz: 82km
  • Grudziadz to Toruń via Chelmo: 85km
  • Toruń to Trzemeszno: 133km
  • Trzemeszno to Poznań via Gniezno: 81km
Cyclists are few and far between in Poland. This was especially noticeable for me as I had spent the previous two weeks in the cycling meccas of Denmark and Sweden. The locals in Poland who do cycle use mountains bikes - a wise choice given the quality of some of the roads and cycle paths. I quickly realised that main roads were to be avoided at all cost. So I spent the five days cycling from Gdansk to Poznań on back roads in the countryside, which was an enjoyable experience. My guidebook tells me that 52 percent of Polish territory is agricultural, with almost 30 percent being forested. That pretty much tallies with what I found.

In general, taking the lesser-travelled roads, where I spotted several deer, a couple of eagles, and dozens of storks perched on their huge nests, worked out well. However, one road I took, which started off as a nice quiet country road, soon turned into a sand track suited more to tanks than to heavily-laden bicycles.
When signs warning of unexploded missiles appeared, I realised why it was such a quiet route.
But I figured it was safe when I saw deer grazing, so I continued and safely reached the end. There I surprised a soldier posted at a barrier to stop vehicles entering (nothing had been placed where I had joined the road).

It wasn't all just the rural side of Poland that I saw. I started on the Baltic coast with the Tri-City of Gdynia, Sopot and Gdansk. The latter has held a fascination for me ever since secondary school when I first learned about the League of Nations-controlled Free City of Danzig, as Gdansk was known between the World Wars. It didn't disappoint and I'm happy to go back there for Ireland's second Euro 2012 match.

My journey south to Poznań (where Ireland play their first and third matches) was all about castles, churches and cobblestones, with the highlights being Malbork and Toruń.
I happily spent nearly three hours in Malbork Castle and I camped within view of the impressive building (note how my bike doubles as a handy place to dry my hand-washed clothes).
And I had an afternoon and evening in the attractive walled town of  Toruń, where I enjoyed the local speciality of gingerbread (where better to eat some gingerbread made in the likeness of Copernicus than in front of a statue to the great Pole himself).
After five enjoyable days, during which I saw some last minute building and flower-planting for the upcoming European Championship and I discovered that in Poland cobblestones (the nemesis of the cycle tourer) are not just confined to the centres of old towns but can appear on country roads too, I rolled into Poznań on the eve of Euro 2012. That day happened to be a public holiday for Corpus Christi, so I came across multiple processions and streets covered in flower petals. After spending a lot of time recently in predominately non-Christian countries (India, Nepal, Turkey), it was interesting to be travelling in such a traditionally Catholic country.

So having successfully completed the first part of my cycle trip, it was now time for a change; no more cycling for a couple of weeks, and instead of the early-to-bed and early-to-rise routine of a solo cycling tourer, I was about to be one of thousands of Irish football supporters in Poland to support our team and have a good time.

Friday, June 1, 2012

EuroCycle 2012: Sweden

23 - 31 May 2012
  • Ferry from Helsingor (DK) to Helsingborg 
  • Two days cycling around Helsingborg: 46km
  • Helsingborg to Lomma via Lund: 77km
  • Lomma to Malmo: 15km
  • Rest day in Malmo
  • Malmo to Borrby: 90km
  • Borrby to Ahus: 87km
  • Ahus to Ronneby: 84km
  • Ronneby to Karlskrona: 80km
Having made it to my first two targets (wedding in Yorkshire and marathon in Copenhagen), I cycled off the Helsingor - Helsingborg ferry into Sweden without a tight deadline ahead of me. That meant that I could spend time properly seeing a couple of places, so I enjoyed two full days in both Helsingborg and Malmo. That made me feel like a backpacker again. But following a fun weekend in Malmo, where I joined the locals in celebrating Sweden's victory in the Eurovision Song Contest, my style of travel went back to that which comes with cycle-touring, i.e. arriving at my destination in the afternoon or evening and leaving again the next morning. By now, having clocked up my first 1,000km on the bike, I had learned that cycle-touring is more about the journey than the destination. And I was happy with my journey in southern Sweden, where I saw the ancient,
the modern, 
and lots in between.
By the time I reached Sweden, I had figured out a routine that suited me. In terms of food, that meant stocking up in supermarkets for breakfast, lunch and snacks. During the day I would eat a lot, usually stopping for lunch in scenic locations. 
Then I'd have dinner in a restaurant. This meant that I didn't have to carry cooking equipment and I got to try local food, which to me is an enjoyable and important part of travel. After all the exercise I tended to go to bed early and sleep very well. For the most part I slept in my tent but every few days, usually if I was in a large city, I'd stay in a hostel or cheap guest-house.

I was liking the life that comes with cycle-touring, i.e. eating as much food as I wanted while staying healthy and sleeping well. If only more people knew that they could have such a life, then I'm sure there would be scores of Irish people cycling to Poland too!