Saturday, January 14, 2017


It's snowing heavily outside and I am very glad that at the last minute I packed my biggest, thickest snow boots. They took up half my little suitcase, but I will need them today. I'm also glad I'm staying an extra day. I can't rush anywhere. Slow going is going to be the theme today.

(Out my bedroom window)


I eat a breakfast from a buffet downstairs. It's such a Polish breakfast! If you pass on the sausages and cakes, it can be quite healthy. I'm given scrambled eggs and I add to them herring, veggies, dark bread, along with odd pieces of fruit and a yogurt.


As I eat, I note the people in the room. There are a lot of families with very young kids. Not school age so much, but younger. (Schools in Poland close for a two week winter break in either January or February: it's staggered, so that different provinces close in different weeks. It prevents the overcrowding at resort towns and villages, though some have noted that travel in and out of a city during the beginning or end of that city's break is hellacious.)

And here's a generalization I'm willing to make: Poles love their vacations away from home. Young kids? No problem! It is expected that there will be children underfoot in the guest houses that dot the mountain landscape. I smiled when my architect friend in Warsaw told me that by the time her daughter was 4 months old, she'd been to the sea, to the mountains and even on one family trip to Tuscany. Possibly not everyone is so ambitious, but travel for vacation is the norm, not the exception.

And often times, it's multigenerational travel. At my guest house I see many tables just like this one: with a grandma in tow.


I think in the U.S. this verges on a tad screwball. Table after table with one or two grandparents! (Caveat: I'm not claiming this is always a good thing. I've heard stories of the Polish grandmas and they run the range.) I smile as I recall traveling with the young family along with Snowdrop last May. I see that this was culturally ingrained in me.

(Out the dining room window)


After breakfast, I switch lodgings. From the Orlik Guest House -- good bye, kind and helpful staff! (The owners' kids are getting ready to take their sleds out. Wooden sleds still are very common here.)


(the Orlik)


... Hello Willa Marisyn (just four minutes up the road, though even that short distance is not easy with a bag and a pack on the snow covered road).


This guest house is different: it's a prewar building (dating to maybe 1930), upgraded and turned into small family apartments. It's convenient, simple, but very fresh. The room isn't ready, but I'm not concerned. I leave my bags and set out on my hike to Rynias -- the homestead of Pani Anna.

It's snowing and not too lightly. I think to myself -- there wont be views today, but there surely will be a most lovely snow cover to admire.

Google Maps pegged the hike at 90 minutes. It was nearly twice that much. Even the main road leading to the village of Brzegi -- the place of Pani Anna's church and from which the hike into the woods begins -- is snow covered and tough to navigate.


I want to make you at least a tiny bit familiar with highland architecture. Here's an older house -- dark timbered, aged.


And another home. This is what happens when it snows a lot here:


The two below are classic highland houses.


Okay, onwards! The village of Brzegi winds down a road for about two kilometers. My best guess is that it has two, possibly three grocery stores. Here's one of them. I find the listing of what it stocks interesting: four items are mentioned -- bread, dairy, alcohol, beer.


Because it is snowing, my camera goes in and out of my jacket constantly. Out it comes for a shot of the village, sloping down the hill.


Half way down (or halfway up, depending on your perspective) stands the village church.


There is no service and so I peer inside. Not surprisingly, wood, carved artfully and in the traditional manner, dominates the interior space.


Onto the village road again. Here's a house with three classic elements: a beautifully carved panel, detailed iron hinges and a stack of wood for fueling the furnace in the winter. Many of the homes here are heated by timber. I can smell it in the air, especially in places like Brzegi (where, by the way, there are no tourists and you tend to think most people are not well off).


Dogs are ubiquitous. Some bark, some ignore every person that walks by, some keep a watchful eye and say nothing. Many are chained, but most roam free. None of them seem to have collars, but still, there's little reason for concern. In a village, a bad dog would not be tolerated. This guy is in fact quite friendly.


(Back on the "architecture plus snow" theme...)


And now here's something that took me by surprise: in Brzegi, you still see the functional horse drawn wagon. I spent years of my childhood in a Polish village and so I am quite familiar with this means of transportation. But I had thought they'd gone by the wayside now, in this next century. Not so. Here's one pulling a wagon of coal.


And here's a horse pulling a sleigh with some felled birches.


Finally, just a little under two hours since I left my guest house, I am at the turn off point. This is the road to Rynias:


In the summer, it's a dirt track. I was concerned that it would not be navigable now, but I see easily identifiable sleigh and tire marks. I'm greatly relieved. It would be hard to lose one's way now.

It's snowing hard and I am so glad to have my boots, my warm winter coat, and all the other regalia of a winter in Wisconsin. Too, I brought my hiking stick and never was a packed item more useful!

Despite or perhaps because of the relentless snow, it is a stunning hike!


But there are no short cuts that I can take. All the side paths are covered with several feet of snow.

And finally I come to the clearing. Here are Pani Anna's house and barn. As I've noted before, her husband died and her sister's son, his wife and their three boys live in the big house. In exchange for the help that they offer their aging aunt, they will one day inherit the farmstead.


That's a tricky set up. I knew this in the past and I recognized it again today as I approached the house and bumped right into the nephew's wife. In a half a syllable of a response, she told me something I did not expect: Pani Anna is home.

I'm stunned and delighted to hear it! I go upstairs and knock on the door. She's there alright, sitting by one of the kerchiefs that she embroiders for sale to Poles living in the U.S.


She is pleased but not surprised to see me: I had sent her a Christmas card telling her that I would come mid January (that was before I learned she was to be away).

Why are you here? I ask bluntly after the hugs and kisses and after she settled me with a warm cup of tea. My friends said you'd moved in with relatives for the winter!
I did! She answers. I used to live in the kitchen hut, but it became too hard to stay there and so I moved inside the house, which as you know is where my nephew lives with his family.
And church? Do you still go?
Yes, I can go with my nephew's wife.  She makes the drive into the village.

Such a funny mistake to make! Such a good thing that I did not call off my visit here!

But it is true that Pani Anna is not in the best of health. She has heart issues and she is contemplating if she should give in to surgery. But she is not oblivious to the fact that she has a guest! She quickly re-pins her hair and changes blouses to an older embroidered favorite of hers.

(I see that the photo I had shot, framed and mailed her -- of her and her husband -- is hanging on the wall...)


As she takes out sweets for me, we talk about her family. She is one of nine -- all born and living in the village right after Brzegi -- Bialka. Only one had passed away at a young age. The others are still in good health and they call each other frequently (she received two such calls during the hour or two that I was there).


We reminisce. And we talk about the way things are now: her living arrangement, her everyday life. I notice that she doesn't have a TV -- just an old radio. She says she doesn't care for any it. Stas (her husband) used to follow all the stuff on the radio, on TV. If he were alive, I'm sure we'd get one, but honestly, I can't listen even to the radio. So much squabbling and disagreement! People can't talk calmly any more. I don't like it! Oh, don't I know it!

It's nearly two when I force myself to leave. I'm well aware of the fact that Bukowina -- the place of numerous tourist homes and ski slopes, the place where I was able to find such pleasant rooms -- is up in the hills. I've walked down to get to Rynias. I'll be climbing nonstop once I get on the main road. It will surely be dark by the time I reach my guest house.

I promise to come back soon. I wont wait another five years. I wont.

In the course of our visit, the snow filled clouds parted and departed. And this, too, is a magnificent surprise -- I'll be able to see the tall Tatra Mountains! Rynias was always special because of our youthful trips here. And one reason we came back so often was because of these views.


I would have been okay with the snow, the clouds -- all of it. But with a clearing sky, it is just exquisitely stunning here!


No matter where you look -- stunning.


But I really must hurry back.

On the track again. Oh! I should take a selfie! My cap is sacrificed to provide a steady dry place to set my camera.



The clouds come back for a last hurrah. A few flakes fall again. The high peaks are only visible if you know to look for them.


But by the time I approach Brzegi, the sky is mostly blue again.

(Civilization: a man and his dog. The dog barks furiously at me but when I reach out to let him sniff me, he cowers. The man laughs -- you crazy mutt! All big talk and then you hide!..)


Another horse and sleigh. I tell the man -- that's one lovely sleigh. (Caveat: I admire the sled as a tourist. Is keeping a horse cheaper than maintaining a truck? More versatile here, in the snowy mountains? If that were the case, why has the animal been replaced by trucks and tractors?)

He laughs -- it's good for hauling baggage! Yes, I see that -- today it's filled with manure. We do it the traditional way! -- he shouts back.


The sun loses its grip on the landscape. Shadows grow long and wide. I see a path I'd like to follow... No, I can't. Not this time.


A car pulls up and a man, a family guy leans out and asks -- you're not a tourist, are you? Now it's my turn to laugh. Am I that? Maybe... Before I have a chance to respond, he continues -- because we were wondering if I can make it up this road.
How are your tires?
We don't have chains.
Hmmm... There are signs on many of these mountain roads that warn of the need for chains. Still, he looks determined. I wave him up.  I've seen a car spin around a little, but ultimately make it.
Thank you!

Another sled with manure...


Another classic homestead -- one house still glowing in the last rays of sunshine.


And now I am out of Brzegi and approaching Bukowina. Oh, I come across a horse drawn sleigh here, but it's as if I've entered a completely new set of vignettes. I've come into the world of winter tourism again. Here's a favorite for Poles: the kulig, where a horse pulls you in a sleigh and you wave a torch behind you. It's quite beautiful, especially when there are several sleighs and it's night time.


It's not quite night yet, but as I mount the last hill, I see the last pink tones in the sky.


Dusk. I'm tired, but it's been such a good day -- so full of the kindest surprises.

And you think that's that, right? Not so.

I booked a supper at Karczma Szymkowka (a karczma is like an inn where you would go to get good, local fare). With my email (sent yesterday, when I learned I'd be spending an extra night in Bukowina) I sent this message -- please tell the owner I'd like to say hi.

(Evening walk to Szymkowka...)


In fact, the owner, Janek, is possibly my oldest friend -- dating all the way prior to grade school. Our parents knew each other and it seems I enjoyed playing with him. And I got to be really great friends with him in the first year of primary school. We were in the same class.

To say Janek is surprised to hear from me is perhaps one of the greater understatements I could make. I knew he'd left Warsaw. My sister maintained a contact with him and in fact we met once since our childhood -- when she orchestrated a coffee during one of my then infrequent trips to Poland (some dozen years ago). And now here I am eating supper with him in his restaurant (which also has three chalets on the premises that he rents out to the more affluent vacationers) in Bukowina.


Yes, in Poland, you do not let go of your friends. Not even those you made when you were six years old.

Janek brought out these photos tonight: This, of my sister, me, himself, playing in the river that was so much part of my childhood at my grandparents' village house...


And this one -- of the two of us being grilled on our reading assignment in first grade.


And now he orders for me. I want you to eat stuff that is really from here and which you wont find anywhere else...

For starters, saffron milk cap mushrooms with onions (grows in European pine forests) and grilled smoked sheep milk cheese with cranberries. For the second course, he orders sausages for himself and local trout for me and for the whole meal, he suggests the favorite local drink --  beer (though not warm this time) with wisniowka (a potent sour cherry liquor). (I'm thinking my guesses for going local were spot on last night!)

(the mushrooms)


(the trout fillet)


You'd think we had a lot to catch up on, but in fact that's not entirely true. Without Face Book or blogs or the like, my generation here in Poland has tracked lives of friends the old fashioned way -- by asking others about who is doing what. But we do fill in details. Janek has been instrumental in promoting a vision of Bukowina that in the recent decade has become an established reality: it is Poland's leading ski destination. He tells me -- people will always want to go to the Alps of course. But they start here. They learn to ski at good prices. They teach their kids here. This is what Bukowina is right now -- skiing for Poles, on their terms, at their prices.

We drive at night to the biggest and best ski slopes and he proudly points out the exquisite brand new lifts (that one came from France, this newest one -- from Italy).  He's satisfied that he's left his mark here. He laughs when I ask him what's next.

Who knows?!
Indeed. Let's at least hope for surprises -- of the best kind: sweet encounters with strangers and with the oldest of friends, the unexpected appearance of the sun, a snow capped forest, mushrooms and trout, and a beer with a touch of the sour cherry.