We were about to board our plane to Europe, when the travel conference we were going to attend got canceled due to COVID-19. While this gave us pause, it was March 3rd and no one knew the speed and ferocity of the pandemic heading to every corner of the globe. Flights were running on time and we didn’t want to waste a ticket to Europe, so we boarded. Buckled up and keeping optimistic, we mobilized Plan B and a dream we’d had for years…campervanning Eastern Europe! Within five days of landing in Berlin, we rented an Indie Campers’ RV and set out on a five-country road trip…or so we thought.
The Birthplace of Poland & Final Days of Normalcy
Just two hours from the German border is Poznań, the birthplace of Poland. We pulled into this 1,000-year-old city and instantly realized we had underestimated the beauty of this country. The Old Market Square was lined with hand-painted merchant quarters and anchored by a sky-high renaissance town hall. Just around the bend was a pink marble church so ornate it rivaled those of Florence. Continuing our ramblings down the cobblestone streets, Mike paused in front of a gallery of abstract portraits. “Mom would love these.” Mike’s mother, Patricia, is not only a passionate art collector, she’s 100% Polish, and I also knew she would appreciate a piece from the motherland. We peeked in (slightly nervous about the price tags that might come from this bi-level gallery) and the artist himself Piotr Myszkowski welcomed us in with a smile. We told him about Patricia and he led us to the perfect painting in the back. Sold! He thanked us for supporting his work and said, “I’d love to treat you guys to lunch.” We walked next door to his friends Italian-Polish grocery and he started slicing foccacia, pouring wine, and kicking off a two-hour meal filled with laughter and polka lessons. As his wife was showing me the proper twist-kick-hop move, her phone buzzed. “COVID-19 Alert,” a new 1.5-meter social distancing rule had gone into effect. She played it off, but change was in the air.
Ancestry Quest in Głogów
We continued south to Głogów, the city where Mike’s great grandmother, Sophie Zając, was born. Without too much info from Ancestry.com, we took a renegade approach to digging up family roots…go to the bar and start asking around for anyone with that family name (FYI Zając means “wild hare” in Polish.) This didn’t get us too far but two pints of Tyskie beer got us scheming a visit to town hall in the morning. We met with the registrar, only to find out that when Sophie was born here in 1877, the region was under German control and they didn’t leave any records behind. Attempt #3: The tourist office. Being a city that was 95% destroyed by the Russians in the final days of World War II, Głogów doesn’t receive many foreign visitors, save from those also looking for their family roots. By de facto, the visitor center employees doubled as amateur genealogists. Our new friend Wojtek gave us tons of resources, then took off the rest of the day to show us the oldest parts of this 10th-century town. We didn’t even tell him we were bloggers, he just voluntarily gave us the VIP tour inside the walls of the moat, the bombed-out cathedral that only gets opened a few times a year, and the city’s original market square that hides below street level. While we didn’t learn more hard details on Great Grandma Sophie, we felt deeply connected to her for the first time.
The Crossroads of the Czech Republic & the Coronavirus
Cruising along southern Poland, we were just 100 kilometers from the Czech border and feeling like we needed a special adventure for our wedding anniversary that day. The northern town of Olomouc has one of the country’s top 10 restaurants and their vegan-friendly menu was calling our name. Entrée was absolutely whimsical, with a ceiling of fairy-lit branches and vine-covered walls, but you could tell something was amiss. Tables were whispering and the waitstaff looked forlorn. Then our server clued us in on the breaking coronavirus news—the country’s borders were about to close. And with that our celebratory dinner became an emergency planning session. “Do we head to Slovakia, hide out here in the Czech Republic, or go back to Poland where we can explore your ancestry and live off pierogies?” We debated going home but that meant thousands of dollars in flights, quarantining in our camper storage facility in Texas, and resurfacing in a country with way higher infection rates. The next morning we high-tailed it back to Poland and the border shut behind us…indefinitely.
Krakow & Comfort Food
We had a feeling our sightseeing days were numbered, so we headed straight for the UNESCO World Heritage City of Krakow. Some shops, restaurants, and tours were still on offer, but this was not the snap-happy tourist haven it’s known to be. A busker played a bittersweet sonata on the cello and it echoed through the empty streets. A shopkeeper in the Cloth Market was slumped over his glass case of tchotchkes, no doubt thinking about the loss of revenue in the coming weeks. We went to the old Jewish Quarter for potato pancakes and a scribbled sign said it was their last day for sit-down service. One of the few types of dining that had yet to be regulated was in-home cooking classes—our favorite kind! The next night we booked a private “Pierogi Power Workshop” through Eataway, a network of 500 cooks in 73 countries. And as luck would have it, it was hosted by the founder herself and our first Polish angel, Marta Bradshaw. As we rolled, stuffed, and pinched pierogies, we shared our collective fears and dampened them with wine. Her fully booked calendar of tourist classes was thinning so fast that she turned off the alerts to keep from crying. We were now stuck in a country that was closing all services for visitors—tourist offices, cultural institutions, hotels, campgrounds, restaurants, basically all the essentials of a trip. As we parted ways with bellies full of delicious wild mushroom dumplings and borscht soup, Marta graciously gave us an open invitation to her cabin in the woods and the comfort that we weren’t alone.
Meet Atlas the Camper, Our Quarantine Mobile
If we weren’t seasoned travelers (on the road full-time since January 2012) and didn’t have this self-contained Fiat campervan, we probably would have been freaking out. Being trapped in a foreign land in a 120-square-foot rental could have been a nightmare, but we had everything we needed to safely and happily self-isolate (thank you, Indie Campers!). This luxe rig had a kitchen, bathroom, shower, ample storage, and living quarters that were surprisingly versatile and spacious (see our campervan tour here). That said, a shutdown camping sector didn’t make it easy to meet our basic needs. Drinking water, waste disposal, and a safe place to camp were all in question, and there was certainly no place to plug into a power source. To have enough battery life to run the lights, water pump, heater fan, and charge our electronics, we needed to drive around two hours per day. The recommended action of “shelter in place” had to become “shelter in motion.” The Poland road trip must go on!
Heading for the Hills & Carpathian Mountains
So we took to the backroads, far from urban areas and the feeling of a zombie apocalypse. Guided by our trusty Lonely Planet Poland Guidebook and our Park4Night app (the Europe boondocking bible!), we headed south to Zakopane and the Tatra Range. The jagged snowcapped peaks towered over this storybook village. The area is known for its distinct wooden houses with ornately carved facades, sweeping gables, and folk motifs from the highlands region. At one of the churches designed by the founder the Zakopane style, we saw a procession of men in embroidered pants and feathered caps carrying silk banners and singing. The social distancing memo hadn’t quite trickled into the mountains, but we felt so lucky to get this glimpse into traditional Polish communities. From there we followed our GPS up the Gubałówka mountain towards the most perfect camping (errrr quarantine) spot, complete with a fire ring, picnic table, and unobstructed views of the snowy range and valley of villages. We stayed here three days and could have happily camped longer, but if we wanted to see any more of the mountains, we had to beat the cold front coming in.
Hiking the Three Crowns & Forbidden Slovakia
The Carpathians extend to the Pieniny mountains which culminate at the gorgeous Three Crowns massif. We went to the trailhead and an innkeeper popped out to say this popular route was closed per the pandemic. We figured they couldn’t block off an entire mountain so we took a country road, talked to a local farmer, and followed his tip for a backside trail. We got a clear shot of the three peaks, which indeed looked like a gnarled crown, and great views to Slovakia across the river. Further downstream, we saw a barricaded bridge with armed soldiers; these men were an ominous reminder that the border was not to be crossed. We drove east to charge our batteries and get a glimpse of Bieszczady National Park. Upon entering this UNESCO biosphere reserve, we had a wolf sighting and saw lynx tracks imprinted in the snow. Yes, snow; the temperatures we’re going to drop to 5°F that night and we needed to head to lower ground. But where?
Out in the Cold
When it didn’t get much warmer in the flats and the snow flurries were making it tough to drive, I pulled up Booking.com and got us an apartment with a fireplace, laundry machine, and bathtub. Just as I was daydreaming about a bubble bath and prospects of clean clothes, we got an email saying our reservation was canceled per the government’s COVID-19 rules. All we could do was pull over on the side of the road, layer up, and heat the mulled wine. We survived the single-digit night with the help of our stellar propane heater, but our fresh water tank didn’t fair as well (when temps approach freezing, it trickles out its contents). With most public taps winterized and all campgrounds closed, finding water was proving to be tough and an ongoing theme (for better and worse) over the the next two months. We turned to our trusty Park4Night app, filtered the nearby results by “potable water” and saw that a vineyard outside Sandomierz, not only had a spigot and RV spots but also rooms for rent. We gave Winnica Sandomierska a call (with little hopes that they’d speak English or be open) and the owner said, “Sure, come on over.”
Sandomierska Winery to the Rescue
A cheerful young vintner was waiting in front of his sleek tasting room. The door was open, the glasses were set, and a cheese platter was already on the table. It seemed too good to be true, but we gave him the “elbow-shake” and thanked him before anyone could change their minds. Over three surprisingly good red and white wines, Marceli Malkiewicz shared the story of his family winery—an art that goes back four generations but was lost under the Soviet Era and Polish bureaucracy until 2009. As the rules loosened up, Marceli studied viticulture with dreams of bringing back the grapes to their coveted loess soil and being one of the first to start a vineyard in 21st-century Poland. He walked us around the property, making stops at the 400-year-old Benedictine cellars carved into the hillside and the sandy cliffs that give this area a completely different look to the rest of Poland. He said, “This is where we host RVers but at these temps you guys should stay inside. Come have a look at our little apartments.” They were beautiful, with big windows, hardwood floors, hip living area, modern kitchen, and a shower with views of the vines. Yes, please! We stayed here five relaxing days and left completely reinvigorated for the open road.
The Ancestry Quest Continues to Niebylec
The vineyard wasn’t far from the birthplace of Mike’s great grandfather, Stanisław Soboń, so we continued our ancestry quest at the Niebylec village cemetery. With it being a little town and Sobon not a very common Polish name, we were hopeful to find a long-lost relative. After zigzagging around a couple hundred headstones, decorated with colored glass lanterns and silk flowers, we saw “Piotr Soboń” engraved in marble. He was born in 1859—just 20 years before our Stanislaw! With that age difference, it could very well have been his uncle, maybe even his father! We video called Mike’s mom to show her what could be a missing piece in our family history and virtually walk her around our ancestral home. Once the Sobons left for the States in the early 1900s, no one came back. Mike was the first, though judging by all the enthusiastic Facebook comments relatives have been leaving, we don’t think he will be the last.
Warsaw: A Ghost Metropolis
We had been in Poland three weeks at this point and felt to truly understand the country, we needed to at least tiptoe through its capital. We definitely knew we were walking into the belly of the COVID beast, which is why we avoided Warsaw for so long, but it was also my birthday (a day that called for new adventures and vegan takeout). We began with a self-drive street art tour in the edgy Praga neighborhood across the river, and when we saw social distancing wasn’t going to be a problem on the empty streets, we headed for the Old Town Market Place. The city’s most iconic plaza, a place Lonely Planet described as “always buzzing” had turned into a ghost metropolis. Knowing that the city was largely destroyed in World War II and standing before its perfectly restored Baroque architecture without a soul around, it felt as if an invisible bomb had dropped. A guy in a mask waved at us and started speaking Polish into his phone. We thought we were in trouble, but in that cute Google Translate British accent it said, “Welcome to Warsaw. How are you doing?” At our six-foot distance and through the app, we had a friendly conversation and he gave us the tip to look for Chopin’s benches, interactive seating areas that play a story of this composer’s life in Warsaw and one of his iconic pieces. As Waltz No. 10 flowed from the bench speaker, a police car went by blaring announcements on repeat. All we could make out was “Corona…Corona…Corona” and that was our cue to head back to the woods.
The Great Masurian Lakes
With 2,000 bodies of water, we knew the Masurian Lakes District would have plenty of places to hide away. Traditional hamlets and huge swaths of forests weaved around lake after lake, until we reached the country’s largest freshwater beauty, Śniardwy. Driving up a skinny peninsula we found a spot under a willow tree with a little beach and a fire ring looking out to the islands. We went to make dinner in the camper only to realize we had run out of propane. It was as if Mother Nature was saying, “Get out here and cook over the fire.” Point taken. We wrapped our veggies in tin foil and put a can of lentils into the flames for a proper hobo feast. We watched the sky turn from pink to purple to the navy blue of night and counted our lucky stars. To be in nature at a moment when so many were confined to city apartments felt like the ultimate privilege. The following morning we started a new ritual of dedicating three minutes of silence to the birdsong, wind in the trees, and thoughts of gratitude.
Poland Road Trip: When Serendipity Rides Shotgun
With nowhere to be until the borders opened and camper batteries to charge each day, we always took the long way around. We set our GPS to “avoid highways” and bumped our way down the backroads, around lakes, through tiny villages, and into the depths of the forest. With lots of time staring out the car window, we appreciated the way trees arced over the country roads like leaf tunnels, sanctuaries to the Virgin Mary welcomed us at rural intersections, and no matter how small the town, there was always a lody (ice cream) shop. We weren’t trying to sightsee but the country has soooo much history that castles and medieval churches would just present themselves. When we’d see a chapel door open or a fortress with a fallen wall, we’d take that as an invitation to poke around. With all the official tourist attractions closed, this trip challenged us to find our own highlights and go where few set foot.
Auschwitz to The Wolf’s Lair: Facing the Atrocities of War
Being surrounded by Poland’s beauty, it’s easy to forget its horrific past. The country has been a rag doll tugged in every direction and literally ripped apart multiple times. In the 18th century, the country was literally taken off European maps and was not acknowledged as a nation for the next 123 years. Though its most visible scars are from World War II. Germany invaded in 1939 looking to eradicate the Polish nation, deporting hundreds of thousands of Poles to forced-labor camps in Germany, and murdering virtually the entire Jewish population. We couldn’t leave without addressing this tragic reality. Despite museums being closed nationwide, we went to the gates of Auschwitz to pay our respects to the 12 million lives lost and then to The Wolf’s Lair (Hitler’s secret headquarters for three years) to try and understand the root of such hatred. In the final weeks of the war, the Nazis fled and self-imploded this 18-hectare fortress in remote northern Poland. To see this hub of evil blown to smithereens and reclaimed by Mother Nature offered some comfort and also a reminder…bigotry is a dangerously slippery slope and tolerance is a skill we all need to sharpen to defend the whole of humanity.
The Spirit of Travel Lives On
One of our greatest fears about COVID-19 is that people will become more insular and scared to reach outside their circle. That said, at the beginning of the pandemic, when everyone’s health and safety was severely in question, we would have understood if the Polish people were going to be weary of two Americans cruising through their neighborhood in a German camper—but they weren’t. Sure, we got of plenty of odd looks, but when we needed help, the overwhelming kindness of the Polish people came through. From the three rounds of strangers who jumped our car battery to the retired RVer who ushered us to his garden hose when he saw us at a dry water spigot, to Eva the goat farmer who took us in like family. When this petite older lady opened the gate to her RV-friendly farm, we expected her to point us to a corner of the yard; instead, she greeted us with a big smile and insisted we join her for coffee and homemade treats. Of course, we knew the social distancing guidelines, but how could we say no to such fearless generosity? With the magical powers of Google Translate conversation-mode, we shared stories from our journey and learned how she single-handedly runs her farm of horses, goats, rabbits, and ducks. When we told her about Mike’s Polish roots, she invited us back for a traditional golumpki cooking lesson. We stuffed cabbage with lentils and put them in the oven. The next step she said, “We must bake it for an hour and share a bottle of wine while we wait.” We spent five incredible days at Kozia Zagroda, learning to milk goats, watching the newborn pony practice its trot, and gathering around the table for Polish comfort food. Before we left, we translated our guest book entry about “Eva The Travel Angel” and, COVID be damned, it ended in a weepy-eyed hug. She sent us off with the “anti-vee-roos” (a bottle of her quince vodka) and gave us hope that the spirit of travel will prevail.
More from Our Poland Road Trip and Your Thoughts on Travel
Two months and 3,200 miles of travel is simply too much to cover in one blog, so for more on our Poland road trip, particularly the gorgeous Baltic Coast, UNESCO city of Gdansk, the craggy Sudetes mountains, and more hilarities from our quest for potable to doing laundry in a shut-down land, see this Instagram highlight reel. But most importantly, let us know what you think of this cathartic post. Does this blog make you want to explore Poland and give you the confidence to travel again? We’d love to talk out any fears and hopes for your future adventures. Just remember, if we can have an incredible time campervanning in a foreign country in the absolute height of a pandemic, the road will only get smoother from here.
P.S. A huge thanks to the entire Indie Campers team for their support during these crazy times. Their campervan was THE reason we were able to stay safe, sane, and mobile when everything was hitting the fan. What could have been a disastrous time in Poland turned out to be one of our greatest adventures. If you are looking to road trip Europe, definitely check them out!!!