POLAND

Go to Poland. It's as simple as that. It's a beautiful country. The people are extremely friendly: there's a Polish saying that translates as 'A guest in the house is God in the house.' The food varies from good to excellent, as does the beer. And right now, by European standards, prices are low. How long these low prices will endure is another matter. More than any other country now freed from the old Evil Empire, Poland reminds me of Milton: "Methinks I saw a great and puissant nation, rousing herself as a strong man from sleep, shaking her invincible locks... "

There are admittedly a couple of caveats. Unless you can get by in Polish, you'd better be ready to exercise your German -- or possibly Russian. English is next to useless in all but the more expensive hotels and restaurants, and sometimes, not even there. And Polish roads are extremely variable in quality. The best are as good as anything in Europe, but country roads can be pot-holed and covered in manure. There is also more gravel on Polish roads than most others, for reasons I cannot fathom.

As in many other countries of the former communist bloc, discrepancies between rich and poor are widening. The Poles are aware of this, and are doing their best to maintain decent standards of living for the poor (who are often of the older generation) without the kind of taxation and regulation that discourages industry and entrepreneurship too much. Some businesses (and some businessmen) complain about any regulation that compels them to treat their workers decently, or to pay them a decent wage, or to refrain from fouling the environment, but this kind of attitude is probably less widespread in Poland than in many other countries.

Polish jokes? The joke is on you. You may occasionally have met Poles outside Poland who do make you wonder if the jokes don't have some basis in fact, but Poland itself is a remarkably well- organized country (at least for the visitor -- Polish politics are something else) and there is absolutely no need to worry about dealing with a greater proportion of unusually stupid people than you would encounter at home. Indeed, you'll probably meet fewer. At university, a surprising number of my friends were Poles -- Ekaterina Barbara Irena, where are you? -- and one of my dearest friends to this day is half Polish.

Far and away the best web site that I found was www.tourpol.com, the official site of the Polish National Tourist Office in (of all places) Stockholm. It's in English and there's lots of good information. Another excellent site is www.visitpoland.com. The US and UK official tourist office sites are hopelessly lightweight -- don't bother.

Most maps are on too small a scale to show much detail: scales like 1:800 000 (1cm = 8km, 12.6 miles to the inch). Then again, Poland is a big country and besides, it's one of those countries where creatively getting lost often brings rewards.

We were happy enough with the Kompas 'Polska Tani Atlas Samochodwy' (Kompas Wydawnictwo Kartograficze Szczecin, tel/fax +91 489 23 08 or +91 489 23 07 -- no web-site given). The scale is right on the limit for detail at 1:500 000 (1 cm = 5 km, or 7.9 miles/inch), but it's a compact atlas and not expensive. It also contains plans of 19 of Poland's major towns and cities on a variety of scales from 1:75 000 to 1:100 000, but you'll need very good eyesight or a magnifying glass to read some of them. The atlas is approximately 17x24cm or 6.8 x 9.5 inches so it goes into a tank bag easily.

There's a 1:300 000 atlas (1 cm = 3 km, 4.7 miles/inch) from Geocenter but I've not seen it so I don't know how good it it (probably very) or how handy (probably less than Kompas).

Put it this way. While I was working on this web-site, there were times when I wanted to turn off the computer; get on the bike; and go back to where I was writing about. Nowhere was that feeling stronger than when I reviewed what I wrote about Poland.

MOTORING AND MOTORCYCLISTS

The general public seems pretty neutral about motorcyclists -- neither actively anti, as in Britain or the United States, nor unusually welcoming, which is increasingly the case in Switzerland and Austria -- but the police are not always very keen on them because (in the disarmingly honest phrase of one Polish motorcyclist) 'we ride too fast'.

He's not kidding. Road discipline (and the observation of speed limits) in Poland is among the worst we have ever seen, anywhere in the world. It's about like Greece. The Poles have more road markings and road signs than the Greeks, but pay no attention whatsoever to the vast majority of them, except perhaps stop signs and traffic lights (which puts them ahead of India).

But they're not aggressive. Other road users are not out to get you, so as long as you're awake, you should be safe. Put it this way: we certainly didn't feel threatened by Polish driving. Indeed, most Polish drivers are very cooperative and will pull over (onto the hard shoulder if necessary) to accommodate overtaking -- both those who are overtaking them and those who are coming in the opposite direction. In this sense they are the exact opposite of Germans, who ALWAYS insist on right of way and their absolute title to the piece of road that they are occupying.

The welcome you are likely to get from fellow-motorcyclists is as warm as you will find anywhere, and as already noted, Poles tend to be extremely friendly. Helmets are compulsory; no other protective clothing is legally required. Neither a first aid kit nor a set of spare bulbs is required, though both are of course recommended. Daylight riding lights are required at all times when driving outside built-up areas. They are also required for cars and other vehicles (!) from the beginning of November to the end of February. Use of the horn is illegal in built-up areas except in emergencies.

ROADS AND RIDING

As already noted, the best roads are excellent, and the worst are awful: not Greek or Indian awful, with wheel-swallowing potholes, but still pretty bad at times.

On the open road, watch out for very poor road-beds, quite unequal to carrying modern traffic, where the road has 'squished' like mud into ruts with humps at the side -- often, very irregular humps. These roads may be subject to special speed limits, but sometimes they aren't. Look out too for less serious versions of the same thing: quite a shallow groove, worn by heavy lorries, can steer your motorcycle for you in a convincing and disquieting manner.

In towns, the biggest hazard is man-hole covers and other access hatches that are often well below the level of the road: the effect is very similar to a pot-hole. Occasionally, just for variety, you may come across raised ones, instead. Some town roads are surfaced with setts or (rarely) cobbles. There are no motorway tolls. Right of way is the usual priority to the right, unless otherwise marked -- as it usually is. The international standard priority sign is a yellow lozenge shaped like the diamond on a playing card: when the road you are on no longer has the priority, there will be a 'yield' or 'stop' sign at the junction itself, but the only warning you receive that there is a junction coming up may be a priority sign with a diagonal black line through it. If you come from a country where this sign is not used, this can be a nasty shock: you need to train yourself to look out for it.

The official speed limits are surprisingly complicated: 20 km/h (12 mph) in residential areas, 50 km/h (31 mph) in built-up areas, 90 km/h (56 mph) on minor roads outside built up areas, 100 km/h (62 mph) on major roads outside built up areas, 110 km/h (68mph) and 130 km/h (81 mph) on motorways -- where there is also a 40 km/h (25 mph) minimum limit. Fortunately they are normally posted, with the possible exception of built-up areas.

A particularly ingenious Polish trick is to mark the beginning of a built up area (and hence the beginning of the 50 km/h speed limit) with one of those stylized drawings of a town that are generally used in international road atlases to indicate 'speed limit in built up areas'. The end of the built up area is indicated by the same thing with a line through it.

You may well find the local sign-erector's interpretation of a built-up area to be at variance with yours. Quite often, you will find that three or four rather scanty-looking villages, plus the open land in between, are lumped together as one 'built-up area'. You may have decided that the speed limit has lapsed some time before, when suddenly you turn a corner and find the 'speed limit off' sign.

If you have a child on the back of your motorcycle, or in a sidecar, you are limited to 20 km/h (12 mph) in built up areas, or 40 km/h (25 mph) on all other roads, at all times, and if you are towing, you are limited to 30 km/h in built-up areas and 60 km/h on the open road, including motorways. I'm not quite sure how old a 'child' has to be: probably under 12, by analogy with other Polish motoring law.

Not that any of this seems to worry the Poles very much anyway. Drive inside the speed limit -- or even at 5 to 10 km/h above it -- and you will be overtaken by almost everything on the road.

There are no special rules about overtaking: you mustn't do it when it's dangerous, or where it is expressly forbidden by signs or road markings. In poor visibility, you are supposed to use your horn to indicate when you are going to overtake.

In practice, the Poles merrily overtake anywhere and everywhere.

Parking on the sidewalk (pavement) is permitted in Poland, provided you do not cause an obstruction. Otherwise, the usual common-sense rules apply: avoid the brows of hills, corners, or anywhere else that you are likely to endanger other road users.

WHEN TO GO

Summer is probably the best time. Summers can be hot, though rarely unpleasantly so: look for average daily maxima above 21 degrees C, 70 degrees F, only in June, July and August. Winters are often bitter, and vary widely in length: minimum daily temperatures below freezing are to be expected from early-to-mid November to late March.

As with so many countries, spring and autumn can be superb, but go for late spring -- May, maybe -- and early autumn, September or mid-to-late October at the latest.

PUBLIC HOLIDAYS

Movable feasts of the church, which are also public holidays, are Easter (mostly in April) and Corpus Christi (mostly in June)

PRACTICALITIES AND PAPERS

Coming in from Germany and the Czech Republic is rather easier than passing British border-checks on your way to or from France. Passports are normally checked, but it's a quick and painless process. We've not tried coming in from Estonia, Russia, Byelorussia or Hungary, but would suspect that if your passport is in order, it shouldn't be a lot more difficult.

At many border crossings there is an office of the PZM, the main Polish motoring association, where you can buy maps and get other information. Most border crossings are open 24 hours a day.

Once Poland joins the European Community -- which will only be a few months after this site goes live -- the requirements will be the same as for the rest of the European Union. Right now, they are effectively the same anyway. British nationals can stay for up to 180 days without a visa; most EU and other nationals for 90 days; a few countries, mostly former Eastern Bloc (and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region), 30 days; and 14 days for Hong Kong holders of British Overseas passports. Any of these should be adequate for normal tourism. Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders seem to require visas. For further details check on www.visitpoland.org.

Carry passport; driving licence; vehicle registration document; letter of authority from the owner if the bike is borrowed (preferably notarized); proof of insurance (most EU policies should give this automatically). The minimum age for riding motorcycles is 16.

Unless you have a modern EU-style photocard driving licence, you would be wise to carry an International Driving Permit as well as your national or state licence. Some sources say they are compulsory, others merely advisory. Nationality plates are compulsory.

No real health precautions are necessary, though if you are paranoid and want a cast-iron, gold-plated regime, take vaccines against hepatitis B (if you are at risk, eg haemophiliac), typhoid, rabies (only if you are likely to be among wild animals that bite), tetanus (you need that anywhere), diptheria and measles. Watch out for tick-borne encephalitis if you are walking bare-legged through forests and be aware that Baltic fish can be infected with fish tapeworm (as can most others).

The water is reasonably safe, but bottled water (widely available) is a better bet if you don't want the occasional tummy upset.

Poland has reciprocal health agreements with most European countries: though there may be (modest) call-out charges and a percentage contribution to the cost of drugs. Emergency care is free for most citizens of countries with reciprocal agreements, including British nationals, but not (for obvious reasons) Americans.

Doctors are legally obliged to help in an emergency, whether you can pay or not; failing to do so can lose them their licence to practice.

When it comes to customs, the EU rules will obtain shortly: there will be one set of rules for EU members, and another for visitors from outside the EU. Until then, the rules for EU and non-EU countries are the same. Limits for entrants from all countries at the moment are as follows:

All foreign currency should in theory be declared on entry, and you are not allowed to export more than you brought in, but this is far from strictly observed and is not likely to lead to problems with modest amounts of money.

In theory you are not allowed to take any Polish currency out of the country.

Export of anything made before May 9th 1945 is controlled so if you buy antiques -- or even old junk -- get a letter from the dealers saying it's OK.

SHOPPING AND TIPPING

Currency is the zloty, divided into 100 groszy. There's a thin line through the 'l' in zloty, turning it into a 'w' sound, so it's pronounced 'zwoety'. For rough reckoning, assume 4 zloty to the euro or dollar, 6 zloty to the pound sterling. As part of the financial discipline needed to bring Poland into the European Union, the zloty is a reasonably strong, fairly freely convertible currency.

Credit cards are widely accepted in the more expensive places (and in all the petrol stations that we checked) but if you want more choice in where you eat or sleep, you'll need cash. There are lots of hole-in-the-wall machines (autotellers) in Poland, though as in much of Central and Eastern Europe, they are not as thick on the ground as in the UK, France or the USA. Carry a modest float of zloty or euros: relatively few places are willing to take euros (though a few of the more expensive places actually quote prices in euros), but faced with losing a sale, euros suddenly become a lot more attractive to the average hotel-keeper or restaurateur.

Shopping hours are still in transition. Generally shops open sometime in the morning -- often quite late -- and close moderately early, around 1800. Lunch breaks are more common in smaller towns or smaller shops. On the other hand there are a few 24-hour supermarkets in the bigger towns. Saturday afternoons and Sundays vary enormously according to where you are, what they are selling, and how good a Catholic the shopkeeper is (Poland is a very Catholic country).

Banks are open from 0800 to 1600 on week-days, 0900 to 1400 on Saturdays, but there are variations from bank to bank and smaller branches may keep shorter hours. Most people change money at the extensive Kantor network, open from 9 to 7 in many major cities -- though Kantors apparently don't accept travellers' cheques.

Tips of 10 to 15 per cent are regarded as normal.

The mobile phone network across most of the country is excellent, equal to or better than many Western European countries, though inevitably there are a few pockets where reception is poor or non-existent.

FUEL, OIL AND REPAIRS

There's a sufficiently large network of petrol stations that you'd need to be unlucky (or careless) to run out of fuel. As noted, all that we encountered take credit cards, and we are assured that this is normal. Lead-free fuel grades are 93, 95 and 98 (all Research octanes) though 98 is not available at all stations. There's also a lead-replacement petrol at 91 octane, which again is widely available. Prices are at the lower end of the European norm: under US $1 a litre.

Oil in all useful grades is widely available at petrol stations; I have to confess that I forgot to check oil prices in the supermarkets.

Repairs facilities are patchy, simply because relatively few Polish mechanics have experience of working on large-capacity modern bikes: there just aren't that many of them in the country yet. There are however concessionaires for all major brands, and as long as you can get the bike to one of these, neither parts nor labour should be a problem: at worst, you may have to wait 48 hours for a specially ordered part.

Simpler bikes such as BMW boxers and Harley-Davidsons are well within the abilities of almost any Polish motorcycle mechanic, and if you want a vintage bike serviced, overhauled or even restored, Poland is an excellent place to go.

MOTORCYCLE HIRE

I have not yet found anyone renting out motorcycles in Poland so the only option is to hire from someone in a neighbouring country: Germany is a likely bet.

POLICE, ACCIDENTS & EMERGENCIES

As a Polish friend said, "You'll never really know how Polish police feel about you unless you speak Polish." He didn't mean that they harbour hidden depths of hatred against motorcyclists (though see his other comments above, under 'Motoring and motorcyclists'). No: he simply meant that they rarely speak anything other than Polish, so a non-Polish-speaker genuinely can't tell whether they are being helpful or officious, except from their body language. Overall, they have a reputation for being fair, and not overly concerned with minor infractions of the law as long as no-one is endangered thereby.

Emergency telephone numbers are:

Do not expect to find an English speaker on the other end of the line. Enlist the help of a passer-by.

The police can impose on-the-spot fines for quite a range of things, ranging from driving without headlights (50-100 zloty) to causing an accident (300-500 zloty -- 2003 values). No-one seemed sure about whether they should be called to minor accidents; a lot seems to depend on the individual's interpretation of 'minor' and 'accident'.

FOOD

Along with the beauty of the countryside, the picturesque buildings, and the friendly people, this is definitely one of the reasons to go to Poland. It's true that the traditional peasant diet was monotonous and sometimes bland, and that this style of cooking was prolonged under the Soviet occupation; but Poles who can afford decent food (as increasing numbers can, nowadays) eat well and enthusiastically.

Polish food is inclined to be regional, though there are certain underlying staples: cabbage (also in the form of sauerkraut), potatoes, dumplings. Pork is the meat most commonly encountered, including many varieties of sausage, almost all of which are excellent (there must be some bad ones, but we've not tried them) and a modest amount of charcuterie, though not vying with the French for variety. There's also beef, lamb and game. Fish is often fresh-water fish, which I can't say I greatly care for, but some people like it. Carp is particularly prized (though not by me -- if I never saw it again, I'd never miss it).

Because prices are low to Western eyes, you can afford to eat in good restaurants without breaking the bank, but if you want a picnic, Polish bread is excellent; so is Polish sausage; and so is Polish beer. Wine is quite expensive and not as widely available as beer: some Polish grocery shops seem to devote half their floor-space to beer.

DRINK

Poland is mainly a beer-drinking country, and very fine the beer is too. It's quite a bit more expensive than in the neighbouring Czech Republic, but it's still a lot cheaper than Britain or France. Draught beer is normally sold in sensible half-litre glasses, and many bottles are half-litre too. Polish beer is rather stronger than most British beer and almost all American beer. Polish vodka is also famous (justly) and their liqueurs and fruit brandies are worth trying.

There are plenty of cafe-bars, many with outdoor seating, some apparently just huts (with minimal facilities -- no toilets) on what looks like waste ground.

The permitted blood alcohol level is low at .2 percent (20 mg/100ml); Polish motorcyclists reckon that this equates to one large (half litre) beer.

ACCOMMODATION

In communist days, there wasn't much accommodation in Poland. What there was, was sometimes pretty bleak. Today, accommodation can be found relatively easily, on many levels.

Many of the more modern hotels are outside towns. Some were built on greenfield sites, while others are older buildings now so heavily revamped as to be effectively all-new. You can pay a very great deal for an indifferent, generic modern hotel, especially if you want to be near the centre of a city, but the laws of supply and demand are now pushing down the prices of many other hotels, to what look to western tourists like bargain prices.

For example, in late 2003 we stayed in a superb room just outside Myslakowice. The room was big enough that the furniture included a leather three-piece suite (though in the bathroom there was only a shower, no bathtub). With an excellent dinner, helped down by a litre and a half of beer each, and one of the best breakfasts we have ever had in a hotel, the bill was under 75 euros (about US $80, or a bit over GBP 53) -- and they quoted the price in Euros, and they took credit cards.

Earlier in the same day we saw a very nice farmhouse with accommodation at the equivalent of 30 euros, and next morning we checked a 'stately home' hotel at about 10 euros more than the place we stayed.

On the other hand, there are some right dumps, and prices do not seem greatly to reflect quality: really bad places are only a little cheaper than average, and excellent places are only a little more expensive than average.

Prices are normally quoted per room, though they may be quoted per person. Given the excellent value of the less expensive places, and the very poor value of the businessmen's hotels noted a couple of paragraphs back, it is worth trying to clarify this. Ask them to write down the price you will have to pay for the room, for two people. If you are really unsure, try paying for the room in advance.

Breakfast is normally included, but again, it may not be, so check.

The Polish Youth Hostel Association has a web-site, in Polish only, at www.hostelling.com.pl. Some cheap hotels are a part of this: one advertised small flats (one room, kitchen and bathroom) starting at 23 zloty a night.

There are around 500 camp sites in Poland, and they are not expensive. Everything is included -- hot water & showers. They are pretty basic, especially Category 1 (the lowest of three). Most are open only from May to September.

'Wild' camping is fine with the landowner's permission. I have heard of people asking permission to pitch a tent and being offered the use of a barn or even invited in for the night. This is only hearsay but given the friendliness of the Poles it seems likely.

LANGUAGE

Polish is, shall we say, interesting. It's a Slavic language, written in the Roman alphabet. This leads to unconscionable concentrations of consonants. It's also agglutinative: that is, short words are nailed together to form longer ones, often much longer ones, in the same way as German. As already noted, l-with-a-line-through-it is 'w'; 'w' turns into 'v' (to an English speaker, though it's OK for a German); and there are a number of 'zzhh' and 'schch' (and indeed 'zzsch') sounds that are not easily differentiated to non-Slavic ears. Take 'sz' as 'sh' and 'cz' as 'ch' and you'll be pretty close -- so 'szcz' is 'shch'. The stress is always on the next-to-last syllable.

I find it very difficult indeed, which is why my pronunciation guides in the capsule vocabulary below are extremely approximate, though Frances has (slightly) less of a problem. If you really can't manage more than 'hello' and 'thank you' (which are always worth learning) then you can get a very long way with German.

One useful little word is 'cholera'. As well as meaning the disease, it's also a general-purpose swearword: oh, bugger, oh, shit, that sort of thing.

CAPSULE VOCABULARY

DISCLAIMER

This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.

last updated: 10/11/03

© 2003 Roger W. Hicks