I’m sure that chicken just played The Blue Danube
In the heart of the Polish countryside around Krakow we take a mini break. We have agreed with the courier who is transporting our bikes back to England that we will leave them in the care of his mother until he is able to get to Poland to pick them up. His mother Mary is starting out on a new venture running an agro tourism Polish homestay bed and breakfast from her holiday cottage in the tiny rural village of Dembina, about 30 kilometres from Krakow. It’s a good solution for us all. Mary will get an income and we will get some respite from the relentless Polish drivers before heading into Krakow to start our journey home.
It feels like Polish drivers are out to get us
As soon as we crossed the border from Slovakia, I felt the Polish nation were out to get us with their driving. It was difficult not to take personally the amount of times they cut in front of us, nearly pushed us off the road, or gave me a heart attack with their negligence. Drivers in this part of Poland have no respect for cyclists or each other on the various busy roads. Having spent days at the back of our convoy screaming at drivers to slow down and stop putting us in danger, I was exhausted. I couldn’t enjoy the quiet rolling countryside we had entered, due to the squealing of car tyres and brakes, and the constant worry that one of them would put us in hospital.
A B&B treasure hunt
Our first challenge is finding Mary’s bed and breakfast via texts sent from her son in England. It’s like some kind of hi tech treasure hunt but this time there are no GPS coordinates or pictures to help, just 140 character texts.
“The house is number 88,” Cameron reads out. “Her name is Mary and her sister is called Debbie.” But all the houses are randomly numbered, so that’s no help at all and we don’t know how to ask for Mary’s house. Luckily we have other instructions too.
“Look for rustical cottage on top of hill with traditional wooden viewing porch in front,” says Cameron pedalling excitedly on the back of Stuart’s tandem.
“Wasn’t there something about the entrance being through wooden gates between two trees?” shouts Matthew, leading from the front.
“It says access to property between roads fork is 200 metres from stables,” adds Cameron.
“I can see a horse,” shouts Hannah.
Mary’s Polish homestay is an oasis of calm
We eventually find it, helped by the welcoming call of Mary, when she spots us from the viewing porch. Mary’s bed and breakfast turns out to be a centre of calm in all the madness. It is a small wooden house, backed by acres of publicly owned oak trees, and with a spectacular view of the Tatra Mountains stretching back to Zakopane. Mary’s wild garden is an oasis for the kids, and they play hide and seek in all the nooks and crannies of the wooden holiday home.
Saving Poland bit by bit
We share the house with our host, who makes us breakfast each morning, waking us with the sound of cutlery on the table and the smell of a traditional Polish breakfast, scrambled egg with bacon. Mary has a warm and enthusiastic spirit. Her philosophy is to save Poland, piece by piece.
She starts this in her own back yard by recycling food and packaging, and supporting local producers above the big corporations. She then extends it to the local community, and further afield in places like Krakow, where she works as an ethnographic researcher, helping locals to preserve their traditions and culture. She encourages them to save their traditional costumes, to write down their stories, to record their songs so that they don’t get lost through time.
“Some say culture is always changing and it is our job just to observe like ghost, but I say no, it is important to save it. Don’t burn old dress, it is our tradition and culture and history. It’s my job to change minds,” she explains.
Every day a new proposition
Every day Mary has a ‘proposition’ for us, which involves the locals, or her own family providing services or entertainment for us and bringing money into the community.
“I have a new proposition!” says Mary as we prepare to visit the Wielizca Salt mines on the second day of our stay. “My friend Theresa is very good cook. She will make you a good meal. Traditional Polish meal. We will bicycle down to her house this evening at seven and enjoy it in her garden.Yes?”
Down at the Wielizca Salt Mines
Visiting the salt mines is hungry work. By the time we have cycled 15 kilometres each way, walked down several hundreds steps, followed a guide at breakneck pace through two kilometres of salt mine, run fingers along the walls and tasted the salt on our hands, and admired the vast underground cathedral that the miners have carved out of the salt, complete with statues, altar, and three dimensional copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting, we are ready for a good meal.
A Polish homestay meal
Mary meets us at her gate. “It is six kilometres but all downhill,” she grins, whizzing past.
We feel like the Famous Five on an adventure as we bomb down through the Polish countryside, past barking dogs, with small fires burning scrub on the farmland as far as the eye can see. The air is smoky and warm and for a change it is all downhill, as promised, but thankfully only three kilometres as we know we’ll have to climb back in the dark. We have cycled past so many of these countryside dwellings in recent days that we are looking forward to seeing what’s behind the fences and the dogs. We have watched people tend their small fields, picking potatoes and churning their soil with tractors. We have nodded a greeting to their watching faces as they sit outside their front door. Perhaps now some of our questions about their way of life will be answered.
Making ends meet however she can
Theresa is waiting for us in her apron, a large kitchenly looking woman with a thatch of blond hair and a welcoming smile. She speaks no English and we speak no Polish so Mary translates. She seats us on a bench in her garden and brings out plates of sausage and egg soup and a basket of bread. She watches on as we eat the soup and then brings out plates of cake and chocolate mousse. After dinner she invites us for a tour of her smallholding. She takes us to her workshop where she repairs shoes and mends broken leather goods like dog collars and satchels. She points to each of her eight old Singer sewing machines and excitedly pops another more modern electric one out of a desk. She shows us how to double stitch a piece of leather, and then encourages Stuart to sit and have a go where he clumsily fights with thread and needle.
On the wall is the bee keeping outfit she wears to collect honey. Theresa has no job and so does whatever she can to make ends meet and support her children through college. She leads us through to the stables.
“The horse has just finished work,” she says, stroking a graceful creature who nuzzles into her hand.
“What work does it do?” I ask. Everyone laughs.
“You mean like a doctor or a dentist Mum?” says Matthew.
Deeper inside the stable a dozen hens perch lazily on a metal bar at the height of our waists. Theresa pulls the tail feathers of one and it squawks. She tweaks at another hen’s bum and it makes a more high pitched cluck.
“It’s like our family playing the recorder,” says Cameron.
“It’s a chicken band,” laughs Matthew, and Theresa squawks the first hen again, who comes back with a different note.
“It is very common for Polish homes to have one of these,” says Mary, meaning the stable attached to the side of the house.
“Every Polish family has a chicken band in their shed?” Stuart misunderstands.
As we leave Theresa offers to sell us a dozen eggs to take home. On a bike? With the way these guys drive? We politely decline. They’d be scrambled by the time they got to Mary’s front step.
As we leave, Theresa pulls the feathers of one last hen. It says goodbye. And so does its mate.
“I am sure I just heard the first few notes of ‘The Blue Danube,’” laughs Cameron.
Oh yes, the Blue Danube
The Blue Danube; how long ago that all seems, not just the river but the song. As we leave Theresa and her traditions, I’m reminded of a family tradition of ours which we’ve nearly forgotten in the jumble of dealing with Slovakia and Poland; our Blue Danube recorder ensemble. I hear Mary’s words in my head, “It is important job to nurture, protect, save traditions, not let die.”
On the way up the hill in the dark I whistle the opening call of the famous Strauss waltz, and am heartened to hear Stuart and the kids whistle the response back to me. Our journey is not yet ended; we still have time to perfect the tune and I resolve to get the recorders out again in the morning.