Chapter 2: A Polish Year (continued from Camping)
We arrived in Mikołajki around mid-afternoon after a beautiful and scenic drive north. It was a rather unique experience, actually, because apart from the occasional lift around town offered by Magda and a few other friends, and other than the trip to to Łosice at New Years, we hadn’t seen much of Poland by car.
We had traveled extensively in our three years but this was orchestrated almost exclusively by train with the odd short-haul bus trip thrown in here or there to places the trains didn’t reach that easily. In fact, we had spent trips in every quadrant of the country and we saw almost every “must-see” plus many more “who-knew-there-was-something-to-see-here” places. I saw the horrors of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) twice; Krakow half a dozen times – a city with so much to see and describe, not the least of which is Wawel Castle and the UNESCO heritage Wieliczka Salt Mines; Lublin and Majdanek, it’s holocaust monument overwhelming in scale and perfectly weighing the loss that occurred in that camp; Zamosc and its UNESCO protected renaissance walls; the Teutonic knights’ legacy of Malbork Castle; Zakopane and the Tatras mountains; Wrocław and it’s salt square, my discovery of smalec, and the famous Racławice Panorama; Gdańsk and its miles of amber; Frombork and a crash course in the history of Copernicus; the almost unknown “Wolf’s Lair,” a series of Nazi bunkers where Hitler along with his top officials spent nearly 800 days of the war; the Hel peninsula on a desolate Baltic afternoon (yes, I’ve been to Hel and back … a few times in fact); Święta Lipka and the miracle of the “lime tree” (actually a linden tree) and its stunning baroque cathedral in the middle of nowhere; actually staying in the Teutonic Reszel Castle (yes, really … ‘in’); Kazimierz Dolny, a remotely situated little renaissance town reputed to be the “most beautiful town” in Poland; Łódź and Piotrkowska Street; Poznań; Rzeszów and the amazing boroque and rococo palace in Łańcut; Torun, untouched by World War II, and another UNESCO site with it’s own leaning tower; and every palace, garden, museum and monument, every nook and cranny, in Warszawa and all its devastating history … though my personal Warszawa highlight was certainly the Mozart festival and listening to his music played on period instruments in the baroque chambers of Łazienki Palace and the Royal Castle. I know with certainty that even with this long list, I’ve missed many other amazing sights and I myself am overwhelmed recalling this list, so my apologies if I’ve overwhelmed my readers. Poland is indeed a country deeply steeped in history, often a tragic history, but having seen so much of it, there is no question it is a must-see in its own right.
Thus it was that we arrived Mikołajki having seen more of Polish highways and drivers than I had hitherto seen in three years … but I also got to see the intimacy of driving through the Masurian countryside as we followed shorelines, crossed bridges between the narrows, under the canopies of huge trees illuminated and vibrant with the rays of sunshine passing through, and on we went through so many little towns and hamlets each boasting little restaurants and resorts built out of socialist-era buildings that once provided vacations to cadres and the lucky workers who qualified. These would look like nothing like the capitalist constructions built today with aesthetics meant to draw and capture the wealth of a new Poland. Rather, most were very utilitarian accommodations offering not much more than a hard bed and a whitewashed room with old window dressings and plain wooden finishings.
We arrived at the campsite and Ben bounded from the car with the enthusiasm of a world to be discovered. His legs and paws dug into the terrain like a rototiller and he pulled me along to a new tree that he marked as his for the duration of his stay. Apparently this was going to be where he set up camp.
We set up the tent on the flattest bit of ground we could find and unrolled the sleeping bags we had purchased back when we were still homeless, still in this country on a tourist visa. We piled our bags along the edges and in one corner, I set up Ben’s “baby” blanket (a real baby’s blanket that has followed him around the world) and fashioned a bed for him that would smell like home. I looked at the narrow spaces between it all and gave a sigh: this was going to be tight. With things set up, we put locks on our tents and then we all got back into the car and headed in Mikołajki to grab dinner. Thankfully with the nice weather, we were able to find a place with an outdoor patio on which Aida and Ben could stay with us while we ate. As was their trick, Magda told Aida to pee, which she obediently did, before we returned to the patio to sit down for a dinner of local whitefish and frytki – French fries – while Ben sat patiently beside me as I offered him fries and pieces of fish to tide him over. On the way back to the campsite, we picked up some beer and water and prepared to settle into camping in Masuria.
Back at the site, we made contact with Magda’s extended party and we sat around enjoyed an evening of conversation, beer, and the summer sky. Ben meanwhile befriended a little boy whom he made an honourary dog within minutes. The two of them would be practically inseparable the rest of the weekend as they took turns running after each other and exploring every stick they could find. It was a sight to behold and remarkable because this was in fact the first child Ben had really met and I think Magda, Andrea, and I all held our breaths at first wondering when Ben was going to bite the boy. But true to form, Ben showed he was the adaptive learner and while he definitely was all-in as he played, he moderated his strength and the boy was never in danger. Best of all, the two of them exhausted each other. The boy went to sleep at his bedtime and I’m sure dreamed of magical little dogs while Ben lay panting at my feet as we sat watching the fire.
So it was that after dark and after the fire went down, we headed to our tent with Ben and we all went to sleep. It seemed perfect as Ben quietly snored, exhausted from his day of play … that is, until around 2am, and Ben woke us and rest of our campsite up when he started barking at god knows what. I suspect it was the sound of “someone” talking a few campsites over, but whatever it was, we lost a few rungs of popularity within minutes. I quickly grabbed him by the muzzle and pulled him between Andrea and I talked soothingly to him to quiet him. Thankfully, that was the end of the barking – on our first night. I say this because Ben would reprise his performance the next night as well, making it certain no one would soon forget him.
Continued next … Chapter 2: A Polish Year – Super-Dog