Cycling continuously across a continent really gives you a perspective into physical geography your GCSE classes could never. The very north east corner of Poland is an area of terminal moraine; now who remembers that term?
I did as soon as Mike said it to me. The maximum advance of a glacier where debris accumulates. All this meant for us, besides getting irrationally excited at the application of cobwebbed geography knowledge from deep within our brains, was that it got a bit hilly for a short time. South of north east Poland was the very old sea/lake bed, so it was flat all the way to the Tatras Mountains at the southern border with Slovakia. We joined the Green Velo (a cycle route through Poland) which has picnic stops dotted along the sign posted route. It was getting late but with nowhere we could see to wild camp which wouldn't be on someone's land. We figured, though, that these picnic stops hopefully belonged to either the government or a charity and so parked up behind the shelter of one, got in our bivvis and felt asleep looking at the stars above us.
We had gone past the areas on the map Maxi had given us in Tallinn and we knew we had to get to Lublin to stay with a friend's family but we weren't totally sure how to get there. Sometimes it can be quite hard to avoid major roads which, after Riga, we really want to do. So we took a day in Augustow to thoroughly plan our route the entire way to Istanbul. Mike's dad is also planning on flying out to meet us for a couple of days in Istanbul so it helped for us to get a firm idea of when we would be there. I spent all day (except an hour off to walk the dog belonging to the B&B we stayed in) planning our route using RideWithGPS.com and at the time of writing I'm very pleased with how it's turning out.
Getting down to Lublin was easy and once in the city, the network of bike lanes alongside busy roads puts any UK city to shame. The weather had turned and it was now blisteringly hot so the trousers were off and the shorts were on! This caused a problem with my undershorts riding up and chaffing so we found a Decathlon for new shorts. I'm wearing non-padded shorts each day to avoid the bacterial issue ladies will find with cycling shorts. Wild camp cycle touring does not go hand in hand with positive feminine hygiene unless you go the non-padded shorts route. My Brookes saddle is breaking in nicely so things are comfortable to sit down on, except if there's chaffing from the shorts. It's a constant state of flux.
We had a wonderful evening and night with the family of a work colleague of mine in London who really welcomed us into their home with fabulous food and an evening walking around the old city. Clothes washed and full bellies, we set off in the morning feeling ready for a ride down to Rzeszow to store our bikes for a couple of days. My parents were taking a week's holiday in Krakow to coincide with our time in Poland so we left our bikes with a Warm Showers host, Elzbieta, while we packed a back pack and jumped on a bus to Krakow.
We almost missed the bus. It turns out that there are two bus stations in Rzeszow and we were at the wrong one until 15 minutes before the bus was due to leave. We couldn't see any sign of where our bus service was due to leave from so I asked at the counter. The lady, in Polish, told me that the bus stop was opposite the shopping centre, a good 15 minute walk away. I only understood the name of the shopping centre out of all of what she was saying but I generally understood the message so off we ran to get the bus. Running, at this point, is hard in stiff soled cycling shoes with tired legs, but thankfully we made the bus with 4 minutes to spare!
It was a welcome break in Krakow and it's such a friendly city with plenty for tourists to see. It was odd being around people we know from home (my parents) as we're very used to it just being the two of us and lots of strangers. So it took a bit of time to feel like a normal person again, i.e. sociable, but we were glad of a mini break to refresh our legs ready for the climb over into Slovakia.
Up until now, the hills in northern Europe have all been short and sweet or shallow and long but never really getting up to any altitude. While we were keeping to eastern Poland, and so were due to miss the major High Tatras mountains, we did just catch the eastern edge of them. Our climb over into Slovakia went up to 700m at a pretty comfortable and steady rate with a few hairpin bends at the top for good measure. It was such good fun (yes, you read that correctly) that we'll definitely go back to Slovakia to do the real Tatras mountains and get some really good climbing done.
We crossed the border at 16:35 and started a 50 mile descent down into Slovakia. We were crossing at a narrow point of the country so were only meant to do 70-odd miles until we got to Hungary. We made this journey even shorter as the roads were so quiet we didn't feel the need to climb another mountain to cross into Hungary just to use super quiet roads. Roads were not choked with cars and lorries so it was easy to take a pleasant, yet direct, route across Slovakia and keep our pace up.
The food is becoming so cheap the further south and east we go so we've been buying our dinners in takeaways and continuing to cycle further into the evening to keep the miles up. We're definitely getting fitter. A 12 hour cycling day is doable, though we need to take plenty of breaks. We stopped for our dinner at the town of Medzilaborce as we spotted a burger sign in a café window. We parked up and went in, only for the owner to sadly tell us (in Slovak) that she had run out of burgers. Disaster! But, she saved the day. She got her friend on the phone who spoke English and they directed us to Café Garfield, just round the corner and, they said, we were welcome to leave our bikes outside the shop until 6pm when it closed. We really like Slovakia.
We crossed the border into Hungary at 16:25, 23 hours and 50 minutes after crossing the border into Slovakia. A fantastic country we'll definitely be recommending to people.