Week 4 – Poland from top to bottom

Where were we? What did we do

Oder Delta

This was a first for us for a number of reasons – our first rural excursion, our first time to somewhere no-one had been (Ben had been to Kraków and Warsaw, but not to Kopice (population 135)), and our first catered stay.

The river Oder forms a lot of the border between Germany and Poland, and towards its mouth, after Szczecin, splits into a large expanse of wetland area, home to a variety of wildlife including wolves, lynx, beavers, wild boar, bison, red squirrels, as well as several resident and migratory bird species.

Our hosts at Oder Delta Safaris were Iwona Krępic and Reginald Ścieżka, who could not have been more welcoming or enthusiastic. They made sure we had a brilliant time, and although we were only there for one night, it felt longer, as we had three separate excursions, as well as downtime, and three enormous and delicious meals.

We were en route, a bit later than planned, when Iwona texted to say they wanted us to go eagle watching straight away to get the best of the weather. This was a great decision. We dumped our bags and rushed down to the harbour in Stepnica, where it promptly started to rain. But it eased off quickly and we spent an amazing three hours in the water with our smiley, non-English speaking boatman, who threw massive fish for the eagles and chirped at them (not always with much success) to lure them down. Seeing a bird with 2 metre wing span dive just in front of us was amazing, and the pictures don’t do it justice.

Sophie took this one. On her phone.

In the morning we were up bright and early for our fashion show. Suitably kitted up we headed out on foot to spot wildlife. Sadly only the cranes and the deer obliged, but Iwona pointed out traces of wild boar (Ben had clearly frightened them off meeting them on an early morning run) and beaver. We got very excited by dog-like tracks too, but they were, apparently, exactly what they looked like…

Even her phone is camouflaged

We then spent a night in Szczecin before heading South the next day.

Ostrzeszów

And now for something completely different. Our lovely friends from Kelso moved back to Poland last year and kindly invited us to stay, so we did.

So this wasn’t us being tourists, this was us seeing friends. Who also have four children, and moved countries less than a year ago. It was as noisy and crazy as you’d imagine and we had a brilliant time with wonderful hosts: they even laid on wine tasting!

Ostrzeszów itself is a small market town, with some beautiful churches and the remains of a medieval castle. It’s not on any tourist route but it was nonetheless lovely and a completely different pace of travel. The kids in particular really seemed to need that. We highly recommend this as a place to stay!

Tower built by Kazimirus Magnus. Much to someone’s delight.

Kraków

We had only two full days in Kraków, one of which we wanted to spend at the Wielizcka salt mine, so we had really only one day to spend in Kraków itself.

We are staying in a modern flat in the Jewish ghetto, just across the river Vistula from the old town. So we walked. This turns out to be a good thing as Kraków is installing tram lines, with Edinburgh-like levels of disruption (They’re twinned so maybe it was deliberate).

Which way home?

The centre though was just as magisterial and beautiful as I had expected. We wandered through and enjoyed Wawel castle, the dragon sculpture and the magnificence of the square. We didn’t go inside any of these: the children weren’t enthusiastic and we decided not to push it.

They were, however, keen to visit the wax works. Harriet and Lucy, with a meal to plan and cook, decided against, leaving Ben to accompany the three youngest to “the best worst museum in Kraków”. Ben’s impression is that there was once a very small quite good wax work museum, (Bruce Lee and Audrey Hepburn were quite good) which was bought by a person who was not that good at making new wax works but gave it a go (their Shrek and Donkey were a particular low point).

Salt mines

The Wieliczka salt mines were the main reason Harriet wanted to visit Kraków, having seen a picture about 3 years ago. They were astonishing. The whole area is now given over to tourists and to a certain extent could feel quite artificial (11,000 people a day visit in high season) but it was incredibly slick and well organised and really quite awe-inspiring. Our guide described it as a “labyrinth” and he wasn’t wrong.

We were underground for three hours and we didn’t even scratch the surface (pun intended). We saw only three of eight levels of the mine and off every corridor we went down more and more branched off. I think we all felt the vertiginous lure of these mystery passageways, although sensibly no one acted on it (although Magnus did briefly try to join a different tour group).

One astonishing fact: the stalactites in the mine grow on average 10 centimetres a month.

What didn’t we do?

After much discussion and deliberation, we have not visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. The official advice is that it is not suitable for anyone under 14. Despite this there are many people in the internet who say things like “I took my six year old and it was fine and now they have a full understanding of the Holocaust”.

We did therefore wonder about going anyway. However we, having spoken to the children, decided against. There are some things you cannot un-see. More pragmatically, I understand that there is a lot of walking and it can be cold. If there is one place you do not want your safe, privileged, part-Jewish child having a temper tantrum because they are mildly uncomfortable Auschwitz is it.

The children, Sophie in particular, do though, by their own request, want to come back. They know it’s important. So we will. Just not now.

What were our impressions? What surprised us?

Ben Kraków was the first place which felt quite touristy. Although there are loads of tourist shops in Amsterdam and Brussels (fewer in Germany), this was the place we heard the most British voices. Perhaps that is because spring is springing and there are just more tourists about, or maybe just because it was a Friday and Saturday.

No, we are not going on a horse ride.

The quality and variety of the food surprised and impressed me. We ate really well in Poland. (Karol’s duck was fabulous).

Aurora Fewer people speak English than anywhere else so far. I thought it would be warmer. I don’t know why. When I think of Poland I think of a warm place with flowers everywhere.

Lucy Poland is so flat. Especially the Oder Delta but everything is so flat. I loved the roofs on Kraków churches. It’s like they couldn’t decide which roof to put on, so they put them all on.

Pick a roof, any roof

Sophie The food is really good. It’s so flat here. I don’t know what I was expecting so I don’t really know what surprised me.

Harriet I was astounded by the salt mine, just the scale of it. Only one cavern was excavated using explosives: all the rest was dug out by hand, in an age before mechanical anything or electric light.

Magnus Poland is a bit like the middle of Lidl. You never know what you might find: there’s loads of wildlife and loads of other stuff. The salt mine was massive and really deep as well. I was surprised that Leon had a Nintendo Switch.

What were the highlights?

Aurora I liked just hanging with the Ciacheras and the night we stayed there. We were all mucking about and it was really fun. I liked the dumplings we ate yesterday.

Lucy The Oder Delta and dressing up like bushes. It was so amazing to see the eagles so up close. I enjoyed having the highest pompom in Greater Poland. I liked looking at all the markets, although not just in Poland. Watching them make sweets.

With the pompom this must be nearly 280m above sea level

Harriet It was absolutely lovely to see friends and they could not possibly have been better hosts. The experience of seeing the eagles was awe-inspiring. Kraków was as beautiful as I expected. I’d like to spend more time here. The noise the cranes made was wonderful and indescribable. We saw a red squirrel in the car park of our flat in Kraków. I realise that’s probably normal for Poland but for me it was wondrous.

So much better than the ones in London.

Sophie I liked seeing the Ciacheras, because it was actually someone we knew and they also had really good food. I liked all the safari. I liked our house at the safari but it was really hot. I liked the sweetie demonstration.

Magnus I liked being with the Ciacheras. It was fun because Leon and I got to play Mariokart 8 deluxe multiplayer. I liked it when the seagulls pooped on Lucy. It was funny. I liked the squirrel. I liked the dragon that breathed fire.

Those are more heads, not arms.

Ben I found the days spent in the Oder Delta really energising, in spite of being tiring, if that makes sense. I loved the closeness of nature, and the air, after all those (albeit splendid) cities.

What was the weather like?

Beautiful on the days we had lots of driving to do and a bit iffy the rest of the time.

This was Ben’s favourite road yet. Possibly ever.

How plastic free were we?

Better this week, a little. Food in the supermarkets seems to be less pre-packaged, so less plastic there. Of course being catered for helped too. We ran out of shampoo for the children so that meant more plastic.

What about the Coronavirus?

We wrote about this before we left. The plan then was to keep on keeping on until we were told we couldn’t.

Since then, although the situation in China seems to be easing, clearly there are more and more cases in other countries.

We are not stupid and we are not knowingly risk-takers. But we’ve also been planning this trip for a long time and don’t want to abandon it because of a global media panic. Practically speaking, too, if we were to come home we wouldn’t have anywhere to live…

We are, therefore, proceeding as planned and generally following the Foreign Office advice. Our route is changing a little (and of course may change further). We originally planned to come through Northern Italy on our way from Slovenia to France (where we will meet Ben’s parents and abandon the car). Italy is now out and we are trying to establish the cheapest possible route through a very expensive part of Austria and Switzerland.

Uzbekistan has recently announced sweeping travel restrictions. Currently these don’t apply to us (it will be more than 14 days since we were in an affected country when we arrive in Uzbekistan in late May) but we will be keeping an eye on them and if we have to change our plans we will. We don’t want to spend all our time in a country we’ve wanted to visit for years sitting in a hotel room unable to leave.

We will shortly be heading to the first destination we’ve been to which has confirmed cases. As we write there are 16 cases in Vienna, a city of 1.9 million inhabitants. We are heading there in a week or so’s time. Unless the situation gets notably worse we will still be going. While there we plan to wash our hands, use our sanitisers, kindly provided to us by Kelso’s own Pyramid Travel Products, try not to touch our faces and eat our body weight in sachertorte and apple strudel.

We will keep reviewing the situation but at the moment we are keeping calm and carrying on…

What did we eat?

All the food! We have eaten extraordinarily well in Poland, from a traditional spread with soup and kotlety and home made pickles in the Oder Delta, to Chinese-spiced duck (plus dumplings) with our friends, to traditional pierogi in very unglamorous surroundings in Kraków. We’ve eaten amazing breads with caraway bought off the street, and watched sweets being made in the world’s smallest sweet factory.

We drank Polish wines for the first time ever, and developed a taste for kompot.

We even had a go at Polish cuisine ourselves.

The one thing we haven’t worked out yet is breakfast. None of us yet has a taste for ham and cheese first thing, and as we travel east breakfast cereal is becoming rarer and rarer. There been a lot of bread and jam, and this morning I made porridge…

Polish breakfast. Not made by us.

Thank goodness for all that walking.

Any bad bits?

Lucy There isn’t anyone my age at the Ciacheras. When everyone got a bit tired and cold on the boat.

Sophie At the beginning Magnus was very jiggy but he has got better. The house at the safari was really hot and it made me feel kind of ill especially upstairs.

Harriet Like Sophie I struggled with the heat in the Kopice house, which is not something I expected to say in March in Poland. Phones remain a flashpoint. Coronavirus is a worry. Admittedly there’s nothing I can do about it but I really, really don’t want to abandon this trip.

Ben Magnus and I almost had a “bad bit” in the hairdressers in Kraków, when I was convinced we were both going to come out with peaky blinders hairstyles, shaved underneath and long on top, but thankfully not… I didn’t enjoy family bickers and not having a washing machine.

Aurora I am still finding it difficult being away from my friends because I’m not used to it. Sometimes when I talk to them I get very upset and start to cry. Sometimes I find Magnus really annoying.

Magnus When Aurora and I argued about who was Leon’s best friend and I got all sad.

Any hints and tips?

When eagle-watching, watch don’t try to take pictures, or not all the time at least. It was so much better with our eyes than through the lens.

What’s next?

We leave Kraków today and head south to Zakopane to fulfil the children’s desire for a waterpark and Ben’s desire for some hills. Then through Slovakia to Hungary.

What about the Coronavirus?

Two weeks ago this wasn’t even a question. This week it’s definitely in the top ten.

Our planned route has us spending a month in China, arriving in early June and leaving by boat from Shanghai to Osaka in early July. We’ve bought the map and the Lonely Planet, identified the places we really want to see and worked out an outline itinerary. I’ve even spent the last six months learning some very rudimentary Mandarin in expectation (Nihao!).

Coronavirus. Quite pretty if you don’t think about it. image from Wikimedia Commons

That was all before Coronavirus. In the last week the World Health Authority has declared the outbreak a global health emergency and the Foreign Office is advising against all non-essential travel to China. Even if we were to ignore that advice (which we won’t), Japan has closed its border to travellers from China so we would be turned away there.

Clearly this is a minor inconvenience in comparison with what it must be like for those suffering, their families, or those trapped in their homes in Hubei province, and it is for their sake not ours that we hope very much that it passes soon.

But for the moment, the answer to the question is, “We’ll see“. We have four months before we arrive in China and we will just have to wait to find out what the situation is much nearer that time. We have a possible plan B in our heads (although that too is not without difficulties) and if it comes to it we will just have to do, and go, where we safely can.

For the moment though this is an exercise in not worrying about what we cannot change. It appears that the resilience training has started – even before we have left the country.

How to keep your family healthy on a round the world trip

How do you keep your family healthy on a round the world trip? For six months? When four of them are children?

I don’t know. I haven’t done it yet. And given I’m currently sitting in my front room nursing a filthy cold while one of my children is in bed having refused lunch or supper I may not be the correct person to ask.

But I’m trying. Lucy and I went on a mother-daughter shopping trip today. You know the sort of thing: matching swingy hair and handbags, cutesy selfies in the changing rooms, credit cards maxxed out.

Erm, no. We spent £77 in Boots and Superdrug and came back with this:

Actually looking at it, it doesn’t look very good for £77 but we did buy Lucy a hairbrush too.

Which we (by which I mean I) have turned into this:

I’ve not quite packed it down to the size of a match box, but nearly – top tip – take it out of the packaging. And don’t forget to recycle.

Because, while when you think about travelling for a long time, everyone worries about the big scary illnesses (more on them later), it’s actually more likely that we will get colds, bugs or scrapes and we need to be prepared for those too.

So, for anyone who cares, here’s what’s in our six-month-supply, overland, Europe and Asia, family health travel pack:

Painkillers: Ibuprofen (kids and adults), paracetamol (ditto), ibuprofen gel, cold spray (because I’m a big believer in the placebo effect). Antihistamines (for bites, stings and allergies): loratadine and cetirizine, plus a tube of anthisan-type cream and one of those clicky things that apparently makes bites stop itching so much. I wanted to get some Waspeze but they only sell it in the Borders in Summer. I did get a bottle of DEET based bug repellent too. For dodgy tummies: rehydration salts (and proper medicines – more below). For coughs and colds: glycerin throat pastilles (they don’t do much but they taste nice – see placebo effect). General first aid and health care: aloe vera (good for burns), bandage, sling, safety pins, sterile wipes, plasters, blister plasters, hand sanitiser, lip balm, antiseptic cream, mouth ulcer stuff (iglu, because it works and my children don’t like bonjela – weirdos), micropore tape, E45 (my cure for everything). All, because we’re on a budget, non-branded apart from the iglu and the Calpol fastmelts because no-one makes a non-branded version and it’s worth the extra money not to have non-branded Calpol leaking all over the inside of my rucksack).

Plus the following actual medicines:

(Backstory: I went to the doctor – if you’re reading this hello doctor (and doctor’s family) and if you’re not you jolly well should be – and had a full and frank discussion about what we actually needed. The conclusion was that actually the things that will hit us are likely to be random infections (stomachs, UTIs, ears etc) and travellers’ diarrhoea (and no I didn’t spell that right first time). )

So we have two bottles of (top tip) un-made-up amoxycillin (the horrible banana-flavoured one) and a course of doxycycline as well as a load of prochlorperazine tablets to stop us being sick if one of those bugs gets us (official advice – take those before you start on the doxycycline and see if you get better of your own accord first.) We’ve also got a tube of fucidin H cream (antibiotic and steroid) in case of nasty skin things.

So hopefully if the usual bugs, scrapes and viruses attack we can deal with them, at least for long enough to get ourselves to a doctor. Because they do have them in other countries, it turns out…

And as for the nasties once again we are grateful to the NHS. We’ve been advised on necessary vaccines (and indeed given almost all of them) by our practice nurse, using the NHS travel vaccines site, which for us meant boosters of all the stuff we’ve had already, plus Hepatitis A and B, Rabies, Tick-Borne Encephalitis, Typhoid and for very-brave-Magnus-only the BCG (all the rest of us have had it already – it was given at birth in West London where all the girls were born). And the good old NHS paid for lots of those too (a good thing – £800 on Rabies vaccines may not be the most fun thing I have to pay for on this trip – although I’d take it over the alternative (“nice doggie”)).

So it’s all, minus the packaging (but including the packet leaflets), packed in our kit. And no one is allowed to get ill. Not least because having got it all in there once it’ll never all go back in if I get it out again.

Is it enough? Only time will tell. But if you think we’re missing something essential let us know – we have 37 days to top it up in a language we speak…

Harriet