The morning doesn’t bring any new ideas to our potential visa problem, and we find ourselves resolved to make the best of our remaining time in Eastern Europe. Sure there are places that we’ll now not visit, but that too is part of the adventure. The day starts with the breaking light; there are four hours of road to negotiate, and we know that it will almost certainly take longer than expected.
Our destination for the day is Toruń and a campsite in the city. Today’s roads are wider than those we came in on yesterday, but pristine tarmac is a rare sight. Mostly it’s deeply rutted with potholes thrown in for a measure of fun. The drivers are also much more aggressive as we move south-west through Poland’s northern interior. Whereas yesterday brought a steady mix of truckers, slowpokes and tailgaters, today is a straight-up tumbler of folks who sit right on our rear wheels.
It begins to wear on Nita’s nerves as she brings up the rear; drivers are often unaware when they’re putting riders at risk. Also adding to the melee is the endless interruption of roadworks which has the unfortunate effect of bringing together a nasty recipe of equal parts impatient drivers and road-rage. After our tenth or twelfth stop along one forty kilometer stretch, we see the effect of this as three cars take each other out in a frightening crash.
Close calls aren’t just reserved for others today. From a tight, tree-lined section of road, we emerge into a field featuring a long, gentle curve leading up a decent slope before disappearing over a crest. Three semi-trailers appear over the ridge speeding toward us well beyond the posted 50 kph limit. The first truck passes without issue, the second drifts close to the outside edge of the road and the third loses control, tips into the ditch and somehow saves it before returning to the tarmac surrounded by a cloud of debris and dust. The roads here are proving a little too exciting.
We usually plan six hours for a four hour day of riding to account for breaks and the unexpected, but in Poland, we’re continuing to find that our estimates are way off. By the time we make it into Toruń the sun is setting and rush-hour is in full swing – and the traffic is dense. It takes nearly forty minutes to make our way the eleven kilometres through the city; construction tightening its grip on every road we seem to travel. At one point, signs direct us up onto tram tracks and, at the bottom of an open excavation to our right, a Mercedes has come to rest ten feet down. Somehow the driver missed all the signs and drove straight into the giant hole!
“What the hell is going on here?”
Nita’s question sums up our thoughts for the day. The last stretch is a long straight that delivers us to a bridge which spans the gaping Vistula River. Once across the traffic dissipates, we make three lefts and arrive at Camping Tramp in a quickly fading light, mentally exhausted.
The young woman at the front desk doesn’t greet us. “Hi! We have a reservation for a campsite, but we were hoping to get a room for the night.” It’s a statement delivered in the usual Nita way; kind, open, welcoming.
No response. Instead, without looking away from the screen, the girl begins typing once again. “Hello?” Nita’s question seems fair. “Hm.” The girl puts her finger in the air – not as in one minute but as in “shush.” I let out an uncomfortable laugh.
“Papers.” The charming 18-year-old finally moves her eyes from the screen, her still unsmiling face fixated on an imaginary spot just under the desk. “Papers?” I ask.
“YES. Reservation? You have ray-ser-may-shun, yes?” She’s looking at me like I’m an idiot. Now I’m getting angry. “We don’t have a copy – just email.” Her eyes roll so far into the back of her head I fear for her well-being. She releases a sigh much like a leaky tire lets out a long, steady stream of air then begins muttering something unintelligible.
“Hello? Is there a problem here? Have we done something to offend you? Jesus.” The suddenness of Nita’s delivery catches me off-guard. The only person unaffected is the girl behind the counter who now, for the first time, smiles a wry grin. She’s getting off on it.
Without looking at us, she places a key on the desk and returns to typing. I take the key and look around; “Where do we go?” Silently, she raises a hand and points towards the stairs.
I don’t remember the last time I saw Nita so pissed off. In the room, she rages about the girl at the front desk, but it’s more than that – it’s everything that’s gone on for the past few days. It’s about not knowing what to do about our visa situation. It’s the aching in our bodies and the soul-sapping fatigue. It’s that another birthday is a write-off. It’s that her heart operation is quickly approaching. And, of course, it’s dealing with a young woman who’s unaware of what simple kindness is.
We shake the day off and take a moment to take in where we are. We’ve ridden to Poland, via North Africa and the Arctic. We regroup and decide a beer on the patio of the camp-side restaurant. While the light is dimming, there’s a golden halo which encompasses everything it touches. Soon, beers are brought to the table along with some decent food. At one point our front-desk nemesis appears, filled with humour while flirting with our waiter – until she sees us; then any hint of lightness leaves her body like the last breath of a dying maiden. Neither of us is sure what we’ve done, but it’s clear we’ve done something.
We smile at each other and let the evening pass into darkness. The beautiful part of our life is that tomorrow is another day -another experience – and Camping Tramp will be relegated to yet another quirky experience. The name does say it all though, doesn’t it?
The next morning we wake with renewed eagerness for our time in Poland. There’s a zoo waiting for us in Poznań just a short walk from our campsite at Camping Malta and the fresh air has reminded us to focus on the parts of our journey we can manage. The visa issue will get no better with worry.
The cloudless sky is a stark, deep blue and the chill brings happiness to our hearts. It’s the first time we’ve spent some time on the motorways in Poland and the narrow lanes, deep ruts and harrowing skill of the local drivers quickly dissolve into a comfortable rhythm on the bikes. It’s the first time in a while we’ve been able to ride and look around!
We roll into the campsite early in the afternoon and park outside the office, all the while keeping our fingers crossed for a better reception than yesterday. In front of us, there’s a group of four or five young Germans hoping to get a room, and the receptionist has a look on her face that’s becoming all too familiar here! I look at Nita and can feel her heart sink.
“Can we get a room in a cabin?” the young German asks.
“I.D.” replies the receptionist without looking up. I feel like there must be a script that’s used by all receptionist in this part of the world.
“Sure! Here you go. Can we get a room instead of the tent pitch we reserved?”
“There are no rooms. Not for you. If you want your campsites, you can stay there. If not, that’s fine.” She slams their ID on the table in front of her – all without looking at them once.
With an uncomfortable laugh, the man asks “Why are you so mean to us?! I mean we’re guests, yes?”
The woman turns off her monitor, walks to a nearby room and slams the door shut. There will be no helping the Germans today. With no apparent recourse the young men leave, and once they’re gone, the woman re-emerges from the office.
I take the lead this time. “We were wondering if we could get a cabin instead of the campsite we booked. The name is Breibish.” It’s the same question the Germans asked, so I’m confident of the answer.
She looks at her (now active) screen then back at us with an almost self-conscious smile. “You’re from Canada? Certainly. There’s one cabin left. We have a rowing competition here this weekend, so everything is booked, but this we can make happen.” She’s happy to help us and even takes some time to tell us about some of the sights we should see. We’re baffled, and then it hits me. Poland. Germany. Riiiight. It would appear as though there’s plenty of animosities left over. We thank her for the room and unload the bikes, replaying the reception experience over and over in our conversation.
The zoo is a short twenty-minute walk, and it doesn’t take long to impress. There’s a sense that this is genuinely an animal-first facility; the people are confined to a set of restricted paths and the animals get to enjoy wide-open, natural habitats with relative freedom. Cages are few and far between, and the effect of being surrounded by roaming beasts is lovely to experience. As a belated birthday celebration, the Poznań Nowe Zoo couldn’t have been a better treat for Nita. After a couple of hours walking the paths, we turn a corner and see the massive elephant enclosure, a modern glass and wood building worthy of any progressive city. We grab a coffee and watch the elephants wander the enormous habitat before catching the mini train that runs the zoo’s perimeter back to the gate.
On the walk back towards our cabin, we hear a voice on a loudspeaker and make our way south to Lake Malta and the source of the commentating; there are rowers everywhere, and the competition is on! We’ve happened upon the 8th European Universities Rowing Championship, so the only appropriate response is to pull up a couple of chairs next to where the athletes prep their boats, grab a couple of drinks and eat dinner in the golden evening light. It feels like a perfect end to a make-shift substitute birthday!
We’re greeted in the morning by a clear blue sky and excitement to meet with friends in Berlin. Courtney has been a beautiful part of our lives for many years and, while she’s working in the city, her parents have joined her for a visit. Berlin also offers us a ten-day break – from writing and shooting – and instead to just be.
It’s a short 270km ride to Palais Winterfeldt, our Aparthotel just south of Tiergarten. The highway out is more of the 130kph blacktop and somehow reminds us of the journey out from Canmore to Lake Louise albeit devoid of the mighty Rockies. As we approach Berlin, the roads narrow and graffiti begins to appear on every available spot; walls, windows, vans – you name it, there’s a tag on it.
The Palais Winterfeldt is cheap and humble but quite a lovely spot to land. The elevator is a closet on a string and, hidden from view, is a massive parking courtyard which offers a secure place for us to park the bikes. We’re within walking distance to Tiergarten, Potsdamer Platz and the nearby trains (S-Bahn and U-Bahn) will get us anywhere else we’d like to go.
Nita and I commit to not working while we’re in Berlin and it feels great if we’re honest. Laptops are used exclusively for movies in the evening, days are spent wandering, and our eyes take the time to gaze upward at the architecture and art of this grand city. We make time for an evening with our friends and discover that we’re all surprised by the rarity of English in such a cosmopolitan place. In truth, Nita and I love this. There’s something beautiful about sitting in public and not understanding the chatter that surrounds us. People are somehow more interesting, more honest, more intelligent when we can’t understand them. It’s a random thought that brings a smile to the corner of Nita’s lips.
There are, of course, two orders of business that need to get looked after. First, water found it’s way into my Scala Rider G4 headset killing it during a giant downpour. Finding a replacement isn’t difficult as a decent walk gets us to Louis Fun Shop where we can pick up a set of G9’s.
The second point of order is a massage. Our bodies are sore, and the idea of having some work down is suddenly all-consuming. There’s a strange association with excellent hotels and good massages that makes little sense. I’m sure that there’s never been a study of any kind which links the two, and yet I find myself looking for this magical combo. In the end, I land on massages at the Intercontinental Berlin – and what an experience it is. Nita and I emerge from the darkened room feeling as though we’ve both been thrown into a dryer packed with bricks! My masseuse tries to mask the abuse with tales of working on Venus and Serena Williams during the Open, but it does little to stop the tears from running down our faces. We are broken :)
The next day we find our bodies covered in bruises and laugh; all we wanted was a relaxing massage, so next time we’ll be more clear – though Nita had mentioned the possibility of falling asleep to her masseuse, a comment that was met with a guttural laugh and a “Not wiz meeee you wont!” It takes two days and a concerted hydration strategy to emerge from the pain, but we have to admit, we feel great! Perhaps there’s something to this kind of abuse.
Ten days off is heaven. Our minds and bodies feel ready to step back into our adventure, and there’s profound happiness in both of us knowing that we’re getting back on the bikes. Leaving Berlin feels effortless, and soon we’re back on the road heading south towards Dresden and past our friends Daniel and Joey. Just north of Krásný Les we cross the border on pristine tarmac and stop to get our vignettes for the motorcycles, a process which is less efficient than Switzerland but presents no trouble at all. We take a moment to savour our time here; there’s a bite in the air, the sky is moody, and we’re spending another day somewhere new. What a life!
It’s not long before we’re off of the major roads and weaving our way down country lanes, over river-flanked crests and through small, inviting towns. The roadways keep the day interesting with their quality ranging from glass to car-swallowing potholes but it’s a combination Nita and I have grown to love. The low clouds hang as if caught in mid-flight defusing the light which spends most of the day draped over lush, green pastures.
Traffic picks up as we reach the outskirts of Praha and the usual crush of daily driving presses in around us. It’s not long before we find an exit onto an empty freeway that leads us closer to our home the next couple of nights. The Plaza Alta Hotel lies on the northern edge of Prague with access to the trams right outside the front door. Checking in we hear familiar accents, and much like our experience in Tunisia, they’re less than happy to see folks from home.
“Hi! How are you? Visiting from Canada?”
“Where are you from?”
What the heck Canada!? We’re sliding on the friendliness scale.
We waste little time the next day making a bee-line for the tram and walking into the old town via the Powder Tower – which should be called The Black Gate for full effect. Prague is a wonderful mix of old and new, fun-fair and concert hall. Tourists pack the streets – and for good reason – it’s beautiful to behold. From the crooked uniformity of the rooflines to the towering walls of radically stylized buildings it all feels over the top and yet wholly reasonable. It’s stately and yet, somehow, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Prague represents both sides of the coin.
We find ourselves willingly doing the touristy things. Astronomical Clock? Check. Sitting at a café watching the crowds roll by paying way too much for a coffee? Check. Afternoon absinthe? Of course. Chow down on a wasp-covered Trdelník? Absolutely. You can’t help but be a part of the curious whirlwind that takes hold here.
Hours are spent observing and wandering. Outside of the old town, we catch a glimpse of a more normal life and palatable pace. There are quiet streets, and folks having simple conversations. There’s no looking up, just looking around. Hands are in pockets, and mouths aren’t agape. It’s just life. Normal. We love this aspect of existence as much (or perhaps more) than the other. We settle into patterns, feed on familiar and, sometimes dream of something different – maybe something better. In reality, it’s the pursuit of change the meaning of which is often unknown, only revealing itself once you’re in it – if at all.
That night we find ourselves eating Mexican food at a Czech hotel listening to country music. I open my phone and see that Nevil Stow has just completed his RTW aboard his trusty DR650 “Twiggy.” While we don’t know him personally, I’ve been following his adventure closely. He’s ADV-famous for a number of reasons: a circumnavigation is no joke, he’s a stroke survivor, he presents the craziest back-country bear-preparedness lecture you’ve ever seen and he enjoy’s the liberal consumption of Margaritas out of his garage in Canmore (thus “Garagaritas!”). In honour of his achievement, I order a Margarita and raise my glass to Nev.
There’s a part of me that hopes the meaning of his journey has revealed itself to him in that moment of completion and that there’s a comfort in it. We don’t often think about our adventure having an end, but of course, it will when the time is right.
But now’s not the time for thinking of endings.