Monday, June 26, 2006

Monday 19 June - Birthday at the beach

Thanks to everyone who wished me happy birthday either here or by email, and to those who tried to phone as well, but I simply can't afford to pick up the phone. I had a lovely day. After getting up quite late (I had been playing OpenTTD quite late the night before, again) we cycled over to Germany for lunch. We went to the same town again (the nearest one of course), but ate at a restaurant on the town square, which had some nice fountains. I'm not quite sure what I ordered but it wasn't dissimilar to chicken pie filling topped with cheese. The food was nice enough and so was the view, but what really made the lunch was watching some children playing in the water as one girl (probably about eight years old) decided to take off all her clothes and shove her bum in the fountain. Hilarious! So we were both sat there amused at her antics but really hoping that her parents would show up as that would be telling off to witness in any language.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach. Some ice creams came along too. Then we had a really nice dinner followed by a great big ice cream and fruit dessert, with real freshly prepared fruit too, not some manky tinned stuff. We left for home quite late and it was nearly dark by the time we got back.

Since then we have been going into town quite a lot as I have had some paid work to do, which means I have to check my email more regularly. One day it was threatening to rain so rather than stand around under a tree hoping for the best we went and found the internet shop. This just happened to be next to a fish mongers (the first we have seen here), a butchers, and a little bakery that does excellent cake. We would have been grateful for any cake shop really, it had been a while, but this cake was unusually good by English bakery standards. Now that we have found somewhere that sells a whole cake for £1.60 we are going to have to refactor our budget and our waistlines - I think it is going to work out quite well.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Thursday 15th June - Daytrip to Germany

Since we have ended up staying conveniently close to the German border, we decided to make the most of this yesterday and pay a visit to the seaside town of Ahlbeck, which is about fifteen miles from where we're staying and just over the border from Swinoujscie, where we stayed a couple of weeks ago.

The journey over was pleasant - between here and Swinoujscie it's mostly main road, upon which there is a "slow lane" for tractors and other slow vehicles, and this acts as a pretty good cycle lane. It's nice being able to ride the bikes unladen for a while, and remember what it's like to have some acceleration! Swinoujscie - Ahlbeck was also a nice ride, well-equipped with cycle paths, although on the eastern side of Swinoujscie there are occasions when the paths lead you apparently nowhere, or whoever was making the path has forgotten what they were doing, and you're suddenly on a bumpy pavement littered with lampposts and a huge drop down off the kerb.

One thing we've noticed about cycling in Poland is the dogs. We've seen plenty of dogs in our travels - it's well known amongst cyclists that dogs get pretty excited by bicycles and a favourite hobby of theirs is to give chase to a moving cycle, snapping at the rider's heels. Most dogs do react to our passing by, including some pretty big growly scary looking ones in Germany - but until Poland, it was no bother as they were always penned in by gates and fences. Poles, however, seem happy to let their dogs run loose, yesterday was the third time we'd been chased by a dog (fortunately so far they've all been of the small and yappy variety). I've seen a fair few discussions about this on cycling newsgroups, which suggest solving the dog problem by (a) spraying it with your water bottle (b) shouting "Bed!" or "Down!" at them, well, anything as long as you sound authoritative, especially in Poland where only an educated minority of dogs understand English. Unfortunately, my instinctive reaction is just to pedal faster, which doesn't help because the pedalling motion excites them more, and also because they run faster than you'd think. Eventually, just as it had caught up with my heels, I remembered to shout, and it went away. Dgym was also chased by a wasp yesterday, I'm fairly sure shouting at them doesn't help, but it disappeared before we could try the water technique.

Upon arrival in Ahlbeck, we found ourselves wondering where on earth, if we had chosen to travel by car, we might possibly be able to park it.

Fortunately we had no such problems with our bikes so we headed straight for the seafront and parked up opposite an Eiscafe (our main reason for visiting Germany). After a starter of lemon icecream, we had a very nice ham pizza and tunafish salad, followed up by steak & eggs, and a plate of spaghetti:




The steak dish consisted of a huge slab of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, covered with whipped cream, two peach halves, chocolate sauce and sprinkly bits. Dgym's spaghetti was made up of lots of strands of vanilla icecream with strawberry sauce, with some whipped cream underneath and sprinkled with white chocolate flakes. They were both fantastic, and quite big, I couldn't quite finish my steak, so next time we'll probably share one. But it was worth going to Germany for, and next time we'll probably go for a Pizza Eis, or Lasagne Eis.


After lunch we went for a walk on the beach, by this point the sun was overhead and it was stupidly hot, so we went and hid under the pier for a couple of hours, watching kids playing in the water, seaducks and seagulls splashing around, and boats coming and going, and discussing important matters such as why on earth Dgym didn't spend his teenage years watching Baywatch. When we emerged at about half past three the sun was slightly more bearable so we got on our bikes and headed back over the border for a baking hot fifteen-mile bikeride followed by a nice cool shower.

And just because I'm posting a bunch of pictures, I may as well add one more - this is the sunset over the lake, as viewed from our room.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Wicko

So now there is less of the travelling around, seeing new places and the drama of trying to find accommodation every night, and more about trying to get by in Poland and exploring the area we have landed in. There's some nice cycling to be had around here so hopefully our bikes won't get too cross with us.

We're now in Wicko, where hopefully we will stay a while. Our room overlooks an adjacent lake, which sparkles in the afternoon sun as we laze around on the bed with our laptops, and over which we get to watch the sun set. Beyond the lake is more forest, and it's all rather pretty. At night the frogs sing to us to sleep and when we wake the cuckoos have joined in, unfortunately sometimes the local dogs decide to howl along which is not so conducive to sleep. The weather's been lovely these past few days.

On Wednesday we went on a ride around the Wolin national park to the east of Miedzyzdroje (which is pronounced Meezadroy, or something like that) through some lovely scenic foresty bits, of which there are lots around here. The weather's lovely at the moment, and we had a great time. There's even some hilliness around. Unfortunately, some of the things on the map which looked like roads are not so much roads as tracks, featuring many miles of all our favourite surfaces such as sharp bumpy stones, muddy bits and my all time favourite, dry sand. Various advice on the web tells us that most Polish bikes are mountain bikes - well, now it's clear why.

On Saturday we followed the road down to the tip of our little corner of Wolin Island, through the villages of Wapnica and Lubin. We found plenty of tourist buses, a few cafes, some signs to the beach (which we might follow some other time) and a village shop where we stocked up on supplies. On our return we found a tiny frog hopping around in the garden.

We then spent two solid days sat in our room playing Transport Tycoon.

Rather than using our host's kitchen, they have provided us with a small stove with two hotplates, and two pans. Kinda rules out baking cakes and pies but there's plenty we can do. (We have just realised that we haven't seen very many pies on our travels at all, a most worrying state of affairs). So far we have made spicy vegetable rice (which was very good but surprisingly unfilling), meat & veg stew, a concoction of fried potatoes and scrambled egg with dodgy tinned bacon (which is a little too spongey for comfort), and bangers and mash with some very tasty bangers. I'm quite keen to find a small frying pan so we can get going with the important stuff, i.e. pancakes. The mosquitoes are still eating well, thanks.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Tuesday June 6th - Somewhere to live

We made another attempt at finding an apartment today, and this time the estate agent was open. Unfortunately our tourists' guide book doesn't include phrases useful for finding long term accomodation, but thankfully the agent spoke German so we could manage a little, and she called someone else who spoke English to help with the finer points. Now this may come as a complete shock to us foreigners, but apparently over here seaside apartments have a fair bit of demand over the summer, which can lead to an inflated price. Apartments around here are very much out of our league.

It doesn't help that the cheapest places are in rural areas, and the estate agents are in the cities, and the estate agents don't tend to cover more than the city they are in. In fact finding any lettings here is very hard, and our being fussy about not spending an absolute fortune just compounds the issue. So although we can afford to live here, it looks like we would have to buy a house to do so.

What we have found is a room for rent where the host will kindly let us use their kitchen. It is a few miles south from the coast, with a nice garden leading down to a large lake. Use of a kitchen is going to be necessary as the room costs £10 a night so we won't have much money left over for food - not that it is a huge problem if we go over budget by a pound or two every day.

So we should have a very pleasant summer to look forward to, being not too far from a national park, the sea side and a good bakery. We are also within easy cycling distance from Germany in case we need to go and get decent ice cream.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Monday June 5th - Nie mowie po polsku

After a three night stay in the cheap bungalow, we left Swinoujscie this morning. About time too, as we seemed to have fallen into a tourist trap for Germans - plenty of tacky market stalls, overpriced waffle vans and obnoxious music. We ate at a fish restaurant yesterday evening evening, not a particularly good meal for us but at least the mosquitoes ate well. We're now in Miedzyzdroje, which we also can't pronounce. It's a little nicer and has some lovely parks. Today we ate our picnic at a chess table in a playground, while watching a bunch of Polish blokes play ping pong. We then went to play on a seesaw, and then took a walk down the beach.

The beaches are beautiful here, quiet clean and relatively empty (at this time of year, at least). Even in Swinoujscie, the seafront is well shielded off from all the touristy rubbish, so you can pretend it doesn't exist once you get down to the sand. Today we saw swans swimming in the sea.

It wasn't hard to find a room here. Coming through town, it was harder to pick out the houses which didn't have rooms to let. We knocked on a couple of doors and managed to get a room for 50zl per night. That's about 9 quid. It's a tiny room and the bed takes up half of it. Our panniers take up half of the other half of it, and there's just enough room for us! We have about 15 quid a day in interest off our combined savings, we could almost do this except that we have no cooking facilities so if we don't want sandwiches for lunch and dinner, we have to eat out and that takes us over budget.

We're looking to rent an apartment in Poland on a 2-3 month lease so we can hopefully keep under budget and spend the summer here - so we popped into an immobilien in Swinoujscie to see if they had anything. The lady said no we don't have anything, but printed out a list of apartments from the town website - unfortunately they all turned out to be holiday rentals at holiday rental prices. There are immobiliens here in Miedzyzdroje but for some reason today they all appeared to be closed, despite their opening hours claiming otherwise. Perhaps we've stumbled over another national holiday and haven't quite realised. We'll try again tomorrow, but we may well end up back in Szczecin trying to sort things out there. Which is no great hardship now that we've found the lovely Brama cafe, and also learned that there is a Dutch pancake restaurant in the city. Mmmm...

Saturday June 3rd - We can't pronounce anything

We're in Swinoujscie, which if I bothered to type it correctly would have lots of accents hanging off it, and if I tried to pronounce it I doubt I'd do very well.

We left Szczecin yesterday, heading in the general direction of coastwards. We decided not to try and make it in a day, and to try stopping at Goleniow. We went through some really beautiful foresty areas on the way to Goleniow - Germany has some nice foresty bits, but Poland even moreso. It's a bit scary on the big roads, but absolutely lovely once you get onto the quiet lanes. We stopped off for a picnic in the middle of nowhere, on what looked like a very freshly-made picnic bench.

Unfortunately, Goleniow didn't want us - there were only two hotels and both were full, probably related to whatever festival type thing was going on in Szczecin. Since there were no campsites around, we carried on to Loznica, which was marked on the map as having a hotel.

Loznica turned out to be a quiet, pretty little village which looked very much like the kind of place that doesn't have a hotel, and the locals seemed to agree with our assessment. We were still nowhere near any campsites, they're all on the coast. We were all for camping rough in a bit of forest except that we didn't have enough water with us, and only bread and cheese for dinner, we hadn't seen any shops for miles and had no idea where the nearest one would be.

What Loznica did have was a train station, with trains going up to the coast. So, knowing nothing of the Polish train system, we thought we'd give it a go. Cheers to the stationmaster for holding up one end of a rather difficult conversation in German, during which we learned which towns we could get trains to, times, prices, platforms, etc, and that it's OK to take our Fahrrads with us, they get tickets too. In Germany we would hope that the person we're speaking to might know a bit of English, but here in Poland, the alternative is so strange to us that we'll happily settle for a bit of German! The train station itself was fantastically old fashioned and full of lots of clunking machines with big levers and dials, which the stationmaster was busily operating during our conversation.

The train pulled up about 45 minutes later and we were faced with a problem that seems common on a lot of European trains - low platforms and high trains. In this respect (and not many more) the UK trains are quite good - there's typically less than a foot in height between the train and platform and it's easy to get bikes on and off. On the Polish train, we were faced with hoisting our fully-laden bikes about 3-4 feet up into crowded carriages. Fun, fun, fun. Fortunately our fellow passengers were a good deal more helpful and accommodating than your average grumpy UK traveller, people moved to make space for us and several helping hands reached down to pull our bikes into the crowded vestibules.

The main part of Swinoujscie is on an island, so after the train journey there was a short ferry trip. We headed up to the hotel area, but before we got there we were distracted by the "Relax" campsite - no, we still didn't use the tent, but rented a bungalow for 66zl per night. There are seesaws just outside, so we're pretty much sorted. We had a peaceful night's sleep last night and it's fairly quiet here apart from the occasional bursts of disturbingly cheesy pop music.

Oh - and check out Rachael and Pete's blog, they're blogging their honeymoon adventures in Central America. Which seems to involve lots of flying through cloud forests, eating ice cream and getting peed on by monkeys.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Friday 2nd June - Szczecin

So, against better judgement, we stayed two nights in the fabulous, luxurious Gryf hotel at the centre of Szczecin. We didn't sleep too badly overall, despite orange light pouring in through the net curtains, and being woken up at one point by our light fitting rattling from people walking around upstairs, I don't think they were walking particularly heavily but the tiniest movement would make the whole place shake.

A visit to the tourist office sorted us out with maps and secured us a room at the Arbet hotel, cheaper at 100zl and looking a little less... well... disgusting. A bit further out of town, but not a problem. This one lived up to its photograph, it's clean, non-rattly and even has curtains (although they're a bit thin) and I wasn't afraid to take a shower. Unfortunately we could only have the room for one night, apparently there's some kind of city celebration happening after that so everywhere's full.

So we walked into town for dinner and ended up at the Brama Jazz Cafe, located under the Royal Gate. If you ever go to Szczecin, this place is well worth a visit. Main meals 15-20zl and absolutely fantastic. I had fettucine with spinach, aubergine and garlic - really tasty and far more than I could manage, although dgym kindly hoovered up the leftovers after his chicken with spinach and gorgonzola sauce, which was also delicious. They have wifi there too, although unfortunately we didn't have our laptops on us.

Tomorrow, we're leaving Szczecin and heading for the coast to see what Poland's like outside of the city.

(PS: We couldn't resist - we have ended up back at the cafe for breakfast, with laptops! :)

Tuesday May 30th - Border

We stayed in Locknitz last night, about 10km from the German/Polish border. We'd been planning to stay in Pasewalk, which was further from the border but a bit bigger - but Pasewalk wouldn't have us, there seemed to be some kind of car show going on and all the hotels were full. So we continued down the road, looking out for accommodation, and for the first time found private accommodation without the help of a tourist office, when we noticed a Zimmer sign outside somebody's house. The owner turned out to be a sweet old lady, who spoke so clearly that we probably would have understood her very well, had we known more German words. We slept very well until 20 to 10 the next morning, and then set off for the border.

This was the fourth border we had cycled across, and all the previous ones had been quite insignificant. France/Belgium had a small sign at the side of the road, you could easily have missed it. Going from Belgium into the Netherlands there was an International Dijk marked, although the point at which we crossed was not very clear at all. Crossing into Germany, again there was no border sign, but it was clear we had crossed over when the cycle path stopped and the road signs changed. Germany/Poland was a different matter. There were signs telling us when it was 3km and 1.5km until the border. On approaching the border, we were told which lanes to get into - and the border itself was marked by buildings (to be expected, Poland's only been in the EU for a couple of years), manned and passport-checked (which we were somewhat more surprised by). Well, they decided to let us in, so we rolled on into yet another new and strange country.

We had no maps of Poland. We still have no maps of Poland, other than a large-scale overview I downloaded the other day. So we decided to head for Szczecin, knowing that it wasn't far away and it's big and should have the resources we need to help us start out in Poland - i.e. a map shop, some currency, and somewhere to stay. Riding into Szczecin, we began to realise it's very big, and it took a long time to get in - not helped by the fact that the roads looked like a crazy place so we were crawling along pavements and/or cycle paths at a snails pace, dodging parked cars, wonky paving stones, etc.

We found ourselves a hotel. The first one we asked at was 120zl. for the night (about 25GBP) so we took it. Unfortunately it's one of those places that (a) has no curtains, and is overlooked by many streetlights (b) has a leaky toilet (c) has the world's creakiest beds and (d) makes you feel a bit grimy, and you know that if you try to take a bath you probably won't come out any cleaner. (How annoying - in our travels we've only stayed in about three rooms that had baths). Places like this aren't too much of a problem if you know you can just move on the next morning, but I'd be a bit miffed if I'd booked a weeks holiday here.

It hasn't rained much today, although it is rather cold. I bet England's getting all the nice weather now, isn't it.