While in Poland Will and I met with a group of Polish Hikers who would take trips around Poland to go hike in the Mountains. One such excursion was in the Karkonoski Park Narodowy Wiesci it is a mountainous area, a geographical triangle in fact where 3 countries meet, Germany, Czech Republic and Poland, a region known as Silesia. During the Cold War days this was a no go area for a Canadian Diplomat or any Western Diplomat since it was in a strategic area of the Communist Bloc, absolutely forbidden an area crisscrossed by the Iron Curtain dividing Western and Eastern Europe and fortified with para-military border patrols and attack dogs. It is nonetheless a beautiful area of high mountains, ski stations, and lots of wild natural beauty.
Our group of 60 guys took the train from Warsaw to Jelenia Gora in South Western Poland and then on by regional train to a small town of Szklarska Poręba. The train trip from Warsaw to Jelenia Gora over night was quite funny, since our group was large we had taken a whole train car (sleepers) but we did overflow into First Class which was empty. The only person not with our group in the sleeper car was an old lady who was traveling to Jelenia Gora on her own to visit her sister. Not wanting to divide our group we offered her the cabin in First Class in return for her cabin in Second Class. She was very suspicious and thought this a very strange deal. It took some talking and she eventually agreed to switch and go to First Class. When we arrived in Szklarska Poręba in the early morning, it was around 06:30 am, we had to find a place for breakfast, but this was a very small place and a weekend, very early in the morning and nothing was open, except for a cantina owned by three old ladies and their dog. They were very surprised to see so many people wanting breakfast and all they could do on short notice was scrambled eggs and bread with jam. I do not recall if they had coffee but I think they had tea. The breakfast cost was about 0.66 cents for one person. The cantina was a hole in the wall, old rickety tables a few chairs, very primitive, but picturesque nonetheless for us since we had never seen anything quite like it. I was also intrigued by the old ladies, I had learned that many of them were grandmothers and I knew never to cross a old Babcha, otherwise you would get it between the eyes, maybe old and frail but tough as nails. I will write more about them because they are a formidable Polish phenomena.
It was quite funny to hear them talk about these city dwellers from Warsaw, the Capital, arrive like this and expect breakfast, though for them it was a very profitable affair, we were probably the only clients they would see all weekend.
From the small town of Szklarska Poręba we had to walk to our destination with luggage in tow. Our hotel, I was not quite sure where we were going since I had not organized the trip, was apparently a ski resort up on a mountain. What I had not been told was that it was a few more kilometres from Szklarska Poręba and up a steep hill, in winter it was a ski slope, to this hotel. The first part was very easy since we walked a short distance and took a chair lift up to the first stop and then switch to a tee bar lift to arrive at the second stop up the hill, normally we should have been able to take the final lift to the hotel.
our Hostel at Schronisko Szrenica first opened in 1918 and owned by a German fellow by the name of Endler, the hostel is at an altitude 1362 meters above sea level. Yes we walked to it. You are 300 meters from the border with the Czech Republic.
This is were Fate intervened, the weather in the high mountains can be unpredictable at best and a violent storm a few days prior had knocked out the power and the ski lift did not work, so we would have to hike up the ski slope to the hotel. Now we had a choice either take the longer walking path up to the hotel or simply walk straight up the slope. In hindsight we should have taken the walking path but no, we decided for the slope. Now all the Poles had small backpacks, whereas I had packed my trusted Samsonite suitcase, very cumbersome to carry such a case up a ski slope, but carry we did. The slope was also water-logged making walking very difficult on very soft and soggy soil. We came across a family of porcupines, never seen one up close, they are quite big animals and their quills are very sharp and long. We saw bears in the distance but we made so much noise that they stayed far away from us. Finally I came dangerously close to a Corsican Mouflon which has huge horns, it was a big buck and he jumped out at me and ran down the hill.
We finally arrived at the hotel but we were exhausted but happy to have made it. However this was a very old and decrepit place, in front of the building by the entrance was a huge slag heap of residue of the coal they burnt to heat the place, it had a strong sulphur smell. The building itself was a massive stone building with an Alpine wood decoration inside, it was probably a very attractive building a century ago but it was no longer very pretty. It was cold and very uncomfortable looking, the rooms where like army barracks, rooms for 12 or 8 or 6 persons, bunk beds, the mattress was the finest straw, and the sheets where starched with a strong smell of Javel water. I knew right away I was not at the Ritz (see photo above). Now after this treck I was quite tired so I enquired about the showers, oh said the manager we only have hot water from 4pm to 7pm daily. There was no question of taking a cold shower since the water was from a mountain stream and freezing cold. So feeling defeated we retreated to the restaurant, the menu was rather thin as you can imagine from my description so far of the lodgings. The menu had tomato soup, hot dogs and potato chips. So we ordered the tomato soup and what we got was a bowl of hot water with packets of Ketchup. You pour the Ketchup into the hot water and stir and voilà tomato soup. I suddenly understood why my Polish friends had brought with them all manners of can foods and bread and a can opener, plus packets to make instant coffee. Again they knew something I did not. In their kindness and seeing our déconfiture (upadek) they offered to share with us their cans of meat and fish. We finally got our hot water shower, communal setting, it was truly a luxury and the evening was spent talking about this and that, we were grateful for the friendship and conversation of our group.
The next day was brilliant sunshine and so we trekked to the Czech border, to my amazement the border was marked by a series of rocks on the ground, they were the size of small boxes, painted white and red, National colours of Poland on one side and blue, white and red the Czech colours on the other side. Now most of us did not have our passports with us, I had my Diplomatic Identity Card issued by the Polish Foreign Ministry and we wondered should we try to cross, no border guards in sight and the Czech side of the border looked very prosperous with lots of big fancy cars with German licence plates and a very nice restaurant. It was only about 60 meters from where we stood on the Polish side to the restaurant on the Czech side, not a big deal really, well no you should never enter another country without your passport, but I seem to recall that there was a sign in Polish saying you could cross if to go to a bar or restaurant. So we crossed into the Czech Republic and went to the restaurant and had a very good meal. Obviously the Czech Republic had received a lot of foreign investments at this point mostly from Germany, historically this region had been part of Prussia for centuries and then Germany, this may have explained the presence of so many German tourists.
Upon our return to our mountain lodgings it was decided by the group that we would return to Warsaw the next day. However that evening we went walking to a small village, I forget the name now, it was a farming area and came upon a tavern full of Polish farmers having a drink or two. This was an isolated place and the farmers were not terribly welcoming of so many people from Warsaw. There was an odd tension which I did not understand, the head of our group who was a Polish Banker with one of the big banks in Poland, explained that we were Roman Catholic Seminarist, a white lie which gave us an aura of respectability with the rural crowd. We had a drink and moved on.
In those days we did travel to remote areas of Poland by car and it was always interesting to see that in the countryside far from large metropolitan centres, a non Pole was looked upon with suspicion.