10th July

It’s time to leave Poznań today

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Przem and Jarek, the AJP dealers that we came here to see have serviced the bike thoroughly, checking every seal and screw for the ravages of the road, to be sure we have the best chance of reaching our destination. I’m grateful that they’ve gone to such lengths although neither Mickey nor I share their apprehension about the length of our trip (although it’s entirely possible that our ignorance is the source of our bliss, neither of us being mechanically gifted!). A trip like this will bend the best of bikes, part of the adventure is how you deal with that when it happens. We are pushing these bikes through unchartered territory and out the other side and so far they’ve given us nothing but fun. Thankfully there are no major problems, and the small problems there are are dealt with swiftly and expertly by Przem and Jarek. Mine has a small oil leak, probably from a prior overheat damaging a seal and one set of wheel bearings needs attention – a combination of the extra weight carried and an incorrect batch of bushings from a supplier which has long been caught and rectified. AJP are fast and responsive and the necessary parts are with us the next working day.

I’m becoming accustomed now to life setting my schedule and Mickey has always been good at going with the flow so there’s no frustration at our prolonged stay in Poznań. Over the course of the next week or so we’ll develop a warm bond with Przem that comes easily and naturally in the way that it does when you meet a like-minded person. As much as I’m a scientist who deals with the tangible and quantifiable, I’ve also learned to listen to and respect the esoteric, abstract processes in life (although that’s not to say that I don’t have theories based in more tangible realms about how these phenomena arise!). One of these is the way that some people just resonate with you and Przem is definitely in this camp. He has an outlook and a manner that just fits easily with us and we find pleasure in the fact that our stay has allowed us to get to know him a little better. And whilst our interactions with Ewa – Przem’s wife – and Jarek are more limited by our lack of Polish it’s clear that they share the resonance. We’re in safe hands and so we make the most of our spare time.

Received with a warm welcome and furnished with coffee and delicious Polish apple pie (which is quite different to English apple pie), we take the bikes to the garage before Ewa drops us into the city. Over the next few days we’ll discover bit by bit the rich history contained here in Poznań and all accessible for little or no money. In the course of our week and a half here we spend around £10 on sightseeing .

Unexpected treasures

Poznań is a beautiful town. I’m not sure what I was expecting of Poland, I hadn’t been sure what to expect as I knew so little about it. Whatever it was, I was in for a pleasantly educating experience as it turned out.

The old market square in Poznań, or Stary Rynek, is stunning and took me quite by surprise. It’s reminiscent of Prague’s Old town square but is unique in its own way. A wide open space surrounded by Baroque- and Renaissance-styled buildings reconstructed after the terrible damage sustained during the Battle of Poznań in the Second World War. These buildings are now decorated in bright colours with murals worked into the render. The centrepiece of the square is the architecturally impressive Ratusz or Town Hall and we arrived purely by chance at midday, to catch the goats coming out of the tower to butt heads playfully and a lone bugler trumpeting from each corner of the tower’s balcony. Many of the apartment buildings in and around town have ornate wrought iron railings surrounding balconies that are decorated with brilliant blooms of only a single or two contrasting colours. The effect is quite striking. But I don’t want to give the impression that Poznań is a beautifully manicured tourist trap. It has a charming decrepitude to it too that creeps in to the odd building here and there. Crumbling render, old brick work laid bare, eroded point-work between tiny, time-rounded bricks and the fume stains and dirt of decades that seem to wash in waves down the walls. There’s even a house that has been deliberately maintained to preserve the multitude of bullet holes gracing its walls from WWII, a forceful reminder of the realities of war. It seems to me that the ravages of time are revered as a visible monument to the land’s history here. As a visitor I think this is a great thing. It’s all on display, it’s not something to hide, each crack and stain tells a story and it all adds up to an easy-going, open and honest charm. I hope it stays that way and these places never fall prey to the seemingly relentless drive to modernise, renew and replace.

Laid back sightseeing

We wandered around the town soaking up the vibe, I’m not a city person and often a few hours in the bustle will have me wishing never to see a place again. But Poznań is full of open spaces, many of them green: squares, large open intersections and parks. And people don’t seem to be in so much of a rush here as in other major cities, but maybe that’s an illusion of the space and wide pavements. We found we were happy to sit a while in various places, leafed and architectural alike, before wandering on to another. Often, it seemed that our dallying by a place would attract others, some with the slightly mystified look of locals who had walked past a thousand times but never really seen the place…it gave us pleasure and entertainment to speculate on what their story was. One such place was a captivating war memorial of a glass pyramid skylight sunk into the pavement. Iron eagles emerged from it’s depths below the pavement as well as out of the granite pillars that stood alongside it. As we moved around the sculpture-cum-monument we heard the screeching of unfamiliar birds in the trees up above. It took us some minutes to realise it was a speaker in the trees. And so we settled on a nearby bench to happily while away some time observing others approach the curious monument and go through the same process as we looked on.

I was delighted too to discover Poznań has a botanical gardens. I have a little habit, which has evolved quite organically and without effort, of visiting the botanical gardens in every city I stay in that has one. I find that they’re a good counterpoint to city living. A small oasis of green calm in the concrete jungle in which I can reconnect to myself again. Poznań botanical gardens was no exception, with areas of formal and stylised planting along with wilder, less tamed areas, all with plants that were surprisingly overlapping with Britain’s flora. Mickey and I spent a few happy hours with our adult brains switched off and our curiosity switched on, exploring and delightedly sighting terrapins, listening to mating frogs and toads and watching the insects busily visiting the flowers. We walked back through the huge cemetery in between the hotel and the gardens, another spot in a city that I always seem to gravitate towards and for similar reasons. There is a mindfulness of life that is activated on entering a graveyard, a quiet, healthy contemplative mood that restores me. It’s a place to be respectful of the past, hopeful for the future and squarely grateful for the present. In this case the cemetery was a vast impeccably-kept graveyard with imposing wrought iron gates and still in active use. We cut our visit short out of respect for a funeral taking place down at the far end. People milled about outside the disproportionately tiny red brick chapel placed right at the centre of the cemetery. As much as tried to quell it, my curiosity rose. I wondered whose funeral it was, young or old, man or woman, were they well-loved, how had they died? Good friends and sad times sprang to mind unbidden but not unexpectedly. I silently wished the mourners well as we moved off quietly.

So much history

As we explore Poznań we come across numerous forts and military structures. After the second or third I realise a pattern that piques my interest. It becomes a bit of a treasure hunt. One day whilst exploring Lake Rusalka – a beautiful expanse of water located in walking distance down a pleasant wooded path from our apartment – we find a sign marking the site of the first fort we’ve found. All in Polish, we find a memorial a little further up. Mickey takes photos and we continue on, enjoying the wildlife and nature of the area. A day or two later I remember to look up the memorial we’d found and begin to understand the depth of the history here. Poznań fortress once ringed the city, a massive fortification with forts positioned every few kilometres around its perimeter and these were the structures we’d been stumbling upon. Built by the Prussians, it had been put to use more recently by the Nazis. At Lake Rusalka, we had been standing close to the site of a concentration camp. People local to the area had been imprisoned here and built the lake by damning the Bogdanka river in 1943. Thousands had been executed in the forests through which we had walked by the Nazis. Sobering knowledge and the subtle, unimposing appearance of the memorials we found made this discovery all the more moving. In later days we sought out more forts, Fort Winiary in Cytadela Park and Ostrów Tumski leading us in turn to more discoveries: the war graves of the men who took part in the real-life Great Escape, and some amazing art work and sculpture. (After having glanced at the guide book, Mickey was extremely excited to hunt out the “Horse Fingers” sculpture…For 20 mins he walked with renewed vigour in search of the sculpture. Only after asking me how far it was to the Horse Fingers and a 5 min conversation trying to figure out what he was going on about did I realise he’d misread the Headless Figures sculpture…”you do know horse’s don’t have fingers right?” apparently, this was the source of his excitement “it would have been cool to see what they looked like”…we giggled maniacally for a long while after that…gotta love his mind sometimes! ).

I begin to practice yoga again, it’s been a while and I notice the difference. But it feels good to stretch, breath and connect again. People say yoga helps calm the mind but I’m finding increasingly that I need a measure of calm first to practice. I’ve noticed a settling in myself recently, a contentment and a quietening of my internal world. Mickey and I spend so much time laughing together and I would never have thought it possible that I could spend 24/7 with someone and still smile involuntarily when they’re the first thing I see in the morning. I used to think that sort of life was for others not me.

Time for reflection on how far we’ve come

After overcoming the initial difficulties of adjusting to life on the road, it’s been enlightening to settle again briefly in the knowledge that I can’t leave for a while. It’s given me a chance to observe the fidgety restlessness that overtakes me and, if left to run its course, turns inwards and begins to cause damage. I need a life that occupies me meaningfully so that I can feel like I’m not wasting time. I think I was born to move. My overactive mind needs fodder to digest, a never ending stream of novelty to keep it occupied and happy.

The initial adjustment period, the steep learning curve of culture shock towards life on the road has prepped me well to be grateful for this realisation. I’m aware of those out there who interpreted that initial period as ingratitude, and perhaps weakness, or of indication that I would give up and come home. Something that needed eradicating or denying, something which I needed to stop whining about and get on with. But I always knew deep down that it would pass. As did those who have been through this process themselves. And I’ve learnt from experience that honestly and authentically experiencing those emotions is the only way for me to get through them intact and access the lesson they have to teach. There are some who cannot tolerate that process but there are many who can and I’m blessed to have one of the latter by my side. Always patient, the most intelligent, caring and humble person I know. How could I ever be ungrateful for a life that gifted me my soulmate.

And so with my mind and body well and truly tended and rested, we hit the road out of Poznań. We don’t yet know where we’re heading but we have an hour or so of re-loading the bikes to concern ourselves with before we move to that decision. We say a warm goodbye to Przem and he leaves us with a bottle of his father’s home brewed fruit liquor, a significant gift for many reasons and one for which we’re grateful. Mickey and I very much hope we’ll all meet again one day. And with the now familiar bittersweet anticipation of saying goodbye in exchange for the open road we’re on it, in the warm hazy sunshine…destination for the evening, as yet, unknown.