Friday, January 13, 2017

traveling to the mountains

Does it make sense to travel for so many hours to go so far and to stay for just a short while? For me, the answer almost always is yes. (It helps that the airfares to Poland are at their lowest ever.) The tug this time came from something my Polish friends said when last we talked -- Pani Anna, a Polish highlander living away from civilization on a farmstead (called "Rynias," just by the Slovakian border, a woman who had opened her farmhouse doors for us when we were just students looking for a cheap place to spend a few nights (only to return then again and again as we grew to love the place) -- she's getting very old.

This doesn't really surprise me. Her husband died a half dozen years ago and during recent visits (five years ago with my American friends, and before that -- with Ed, whom she proclaimed was the tallest man she'd met), Pani Anna already seemed very old.

I always think about going back to see her when I am in Poland, but this time, I did more than just think: I booked this crazy trip for this very weekend with the specific purpose of making my way to Pani Anna's mountain home.

That was before I found out that Pani Anna is so old that she no longer can spend a winter at the farmstead. It's too hard for her to hike the hour it takes to get to the village church from there! (She is spending more and more time with relatives who live closer to a church, even if it's not the church that she would call her own.)

Still, her nephew's family lives in Rynias year round and my ticket is the kind that cannot be refunded and so I am off! Even if I cannot find her, I will most surely profit from a hike to her home. The mountain air, the quiet of the woods, and, too, the feeling of arrival as one rounds the bend and comes to the farmstead clearing -- there's so much beauty in that simple grouping of houses -- a timbered home, a kitchen hut, a barn, an outhouse and a dog kennel... Yes, to me, it's worth it.

The iffy weather is always an issue: will there be snow? Ice? Fog? Will it be too cold? Will the path be easy to find if the snow has really buried it?

I've been studying the weather patterns in that region. It's looking snowy but not too bad.

And so I leave the comfort of my Madison life -- see how pretty our lakes look in the late afternoon, from way up high?

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... and in Minneapolis I board a flight to Amsterdam... (morning sky over Holland! so lovely!)

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(It's been cold in western Europe: the fields and homes lining the canals have a light dusting of snow.)

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And in Amsterdam I eat my unhealthy European breakfast...

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And then I fly to Krakow.

How different the landscape here is! Thin strips of field, an undulating terrain, all looking splendid under a light coat of snow.

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With the mountains to the south...

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Ah, there's Krakow itself: even at dusk, I can spot the castle rising high over the river...

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From Krakow, I travel two hours south -- to Bukowina Tatrzanska (translate that as "Bukowina, belonging to the Tatra Mountains"). From there I will be able to hike over hill and dale to Pani Anna's homestead.

Bukowina used to be a sprawling hamlet with a handful of houses, a few b&bs and a a store or two selling such highlander stuff as sheep skins and smoked sheep milk cheeses. Under Poland's market economy, it has expanded its offerings. It's not even one hundredth as as popular as the nearby mountain resort of Zakopane, but this very image of a quieter and gentler landscape has meant that it's a lure for many city folk looking for a bit of highland magic. And so the b&bs and hotels have proliferated. Ski lifts have appeared. A thermal bath spa opened its doors to weary travelers.

I'm staying at Pensjonat Orlik. "Pensjonat" translates to "a small guest house." Orlik isn't quite that. It's cheap by American standards (under $50 for a sweet room, a breakfast buffet and access to some spa facilities), but it's no homey, tattered place. It has aspirations, as well it should: the staff is ever friendly and the place itself has the character of the mountains. The flowered throw on the bed, the roped walls -- familiar to me, to anyone here. Mountain stuff. We grew up with it imprinted on our souls, so much so that most Poles wouldn't give any of it a second thought.

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I arrive in the evening and I've booked a dinner here and so I go downstairs to eat and to contemplate my first night in the mountains.

I say "first," because while in Amsterdam, I managed to write and skype and rearrange so that indeed I will be staying in the mountains until Sunday. I couldn't get a second night at the Orlik, but I found another place for tomorrow just steps from here. For now though, I am enjoying watching young kids romp through the dining hall as parents eat, and I devour an exquisite mountain waters trout, with the typical sides of a Polish dinner: grated carrot, cabbage -- all excellent.

My dessert choice is a little out of character, but I couldn't resist it: the menu has a number of warm drinks on it and nothing sounded as tempting as a warm Polish beer with a dash of sour cherry.

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Tomorrow I explore the snow covered world outside.