A picture-light road trip episode as we spent almost eight hours driving from Wroclaw to Zakopane. I have said from the beginning that this is a bloody stupid way to get around.
Onto the road south from Wroclaw, clogged as they all, always, seem to be. A lunchtime servo did a rather bony kielbasa with chips for 8zl. The land still flat, but gradually getting less monotonous. The roads are well-maintained; this is presumably funded by the regular tollbooths which make this an expensive as well as stupidly protracted way of getting around. A few hills, some mineheads and heavy industry around Katowice; more dilapidated and Iron Curtain-ish industrial buildings, like memories of Romania. Every so often I recognise the name of a battle or a massacre on a road sign.
On one side of the road, the first sign pointing to Auschwitz. On the other, the surreal sight of an American-themed leather clothing outlet with a fence made of motorbikes. Regular churchyards, with so many fresh flowers on the graves (and people laying more as we passed) the vast proliferation of flower shops suddenly makes sense. Crossed the Vistula again, much narrower than at Warsaw, between high levees. More Soviet spacey-looking architectural leftovers: a cantilevered bus station, a leisure centre with cool flying buttresses. Big empty factories, the vague shadows of potential mountains on the horizon.
Suddenly, a proliferation of theme parks: roller coasters and fibreglass dinosaurs everywhere. Mud-coloured hayricks, little old tractors, bored teens on their phones waiting for the bus. Here and there, among the gradually increasing hills, huge quarries and cement works. Here and there, clusters of pretty little buildings with brightly painted corrugated steel roofs. The huge marching concrete legs and piers of a new motorway, ready to render this slow, winding road and its surrounding villages to oxbow-lake irrelevance.
Untilled land, bus stops that looked like stave churches, huge adverts for plastic surgery, painted plaster saints under delicate wrought iron roofs. The Tatras began as wispy blue shapes, but by Nowy Targ they’re hard dark outlines, striated with snow. The houses have changed again, less generically Eastern and more distinctively Slavic, wooden houses with tall, steep roofs sporting downward eaves and extra folds in their shingles like complicated paper planes. We’ve been running alongside a single-track electric railway, a very Soviet piece of expenditure: who goes to the extra capital costs of an electric line for a tiny minor branch rather than running a diesel? A planned economy mass-stamping pylons and electric trains by the thousand, that’s who. At Poronin a train went by, a handsome old red piece with boxy pantographs that needs a lick of paint and probably has done since 1990.
Zakopane, our final destination, is a charmingly incoherent sprawl of ornate wooden lodges, wooden fences, wooden churches and woodsmoke. At the base of the high street, wooden stalls sell wooden charms. They also sell a kind of grilled sheep’s cheese thing with cranberry sauce, which is fantastic. We arrived at the Sanctuary Church as a service finished – the last strains of incense and organ music, and the last nicely dressed parishioners, came out as we went in. On the outside it’s a standard handsome stone Polish church, with the inevitable plaque from Jan Pawel II’s visit (is there a single church in Poland he didn’t hit up at some point?). But on the inside, it’s quite an unexpected treasure, with the usual beautiful but ludicrous Victorian painted murals of hardy mountain folk praying, a priest taking confession in a shedlike mobile booth, gilt flowers and mournful rainbow-winged angels on the arches. An ancient white-bearded man, bent over like a shortbow, knelt before the altar in a traditional Polish waistcoat embroidered with flowers.