Dave the motorhome’s comfortably resting in the parking area in front of the Hotel Gromada, Przemysl, south-east Poland (N49.78146 E22.76022). We’d come here believing there’s a camping area available, but the last report of it being open was from 2003 and, indeed, it’s gone. Ju went to ask the hotel reception if we could sleep here, and after she’d deftly fended off a valiant attempt to sell us a room, they were happy for us to kip here for 15 zloty a night – about £3. There’s an open WiFi network too, so we’re very happy bunnies.
It was 10am before I dragged myself out of bed this morning. I was dog tired, having not slept much in anticipation of various gun-toting, flat-hatted, metal-badged traffic cops lining up along the road to Poland to fleece us. Revived with coffee, we swung Dave around into the petrol station opposite us and filled up, at€1:20(ish) a litre we made sure our tank was brimming full.
Next stop: the Auchan hypermarket to blow the last of our hryvnia (which we finally sussed is pronounced gry-vnya after referring to the as ‘dongles’ for most of our few days here). In our wanderings just a couple of days ago around the same isles, I was Mr Grumpy, after our 6 hour crash-a-thon across Ukraine, and only took a cursory glance at the place. This time, in the knowledge we were leaving the country, I was all smiles. Ukraine is an interesting place to be right now, as close as we’ve gotten to being in a Communist (mis) managed country without actually being in one. If anyone asked if I’d recommend coming I’d not hesitate: yes, get in and see the place, just don’t bring your own car or if you do, plan your route carefully, sort out decent insurance and prepare for thieving coppers (take the phone number of a Ukrainian or Russian-speaking lawyer if possible…). Or you could just do it the way we did and wing it.
From the outside, apart from the fact the French name Auchan has been transliterated into Ukrainian Cyrillic on the outside of the place, and there’s a bloke changing his bust-up wheel in the car park, you could be anywhere in the Western world. Pretty much the same inside too, but for small things. As we walked into the shopping area through the usual little swing gates, we spotted people having their bags heat-sealed into see through plastic bags, presumably as a security measure. Ignoring ’em, our little ruck-sack didn’t attract any attention. I eyed up the laptops – all massive things – all about £300. The specs looked good, but the operating systems was stated as DOS, so perhaps no Windows operating systems installed. I’ve looked throughout our travels for Netbooks in the poorer countries, tiny laptops which were sold at rock-bottom prices in the UK, but they’re usually not there. I guess the slim margins the manufacturers make would be cut to nothing here.
Using the phone as a calculator, Ju kept a track of exactly how many dongles, ah, hryvnia we had left. We started out with about 350, €35. Passing up on the decidedly mutton-looking lamb and the sea-sized layout of dried and honking fish, we grabbed crab-flavoured crisps, an unknown-but-tasty-looking type of meat sauce, floppy mushrooms and a huge slab of chicken fillets. The place did a mean line in ‘as much or as little as you like’ stuff too. You could buy all kinds of nuts, cereal, rice, biscuits, cakes, frozen sea food and veg, unpackaged, unbranded, you just bagged-up as much as you wanted or could afford – fabulous. Topping up with a bottle of Ukrainian wine, a plastic washing up bowl and a tin of coffee beans, we left with change of about £1, in the form of a small wad of notes.
Gauntlet time. Pointing Dave West we headed for Poland, with a couple of fists punching the air when we realised our TomTom maps were back in action. For the most part the road was oooo-eeee Euro 2012 smooth, just a few sections of rough stuff through the strung-out towns but nothing major, and to top it off not a single rozzer to be seen.
A gathering of people and cars milling about the place announced the border, the outer edge of the Schengen zone, the guardians of fortress Europe from the great unwashed non-EU states to the east. Most of Europe’s borders are gone now, dismantled by the Schengen agreement, you just drive from country to country with nothing but a gold circle of stars at the roadside to announce your new hosts. Not here, this is a real border, complete with guns, jack-booted dull-eyed fellas in fatigues and, potentially, a big problem for us and our dog. Yup, we have his Pet Passport so should be able to take the wee mutt anywhere in the world and re-enter the EU, but still these borders make me feel ill.
As it turned out, Charlie wasn’t the problem, nor was the stash of meat and dairy products we had in the fridge. As we stood outside the Ukrainian Passport Control booth, the serious-looking lass within lifted up our V5 log book document to the light. “Xerox?” Oh shit. It is a copy, a decent double-sided colour one, but still a copy. We’d punted the original back to the DVLA to change the address on it for when we get home in a couple of months. Oscar time, we both did a mental calculation of 16377464 divided by 5.65. Confusion on our faces, the guard wasn’t convinced, showing the A4 sheet to the other guard. “Copy” she stated back to us. Feck! We played dumb, probably turning beetroot. She didn’t care as it turned out, handing us it back with our passports.
We’d forgotten about this illegality about our existence in Ukraine, but were well and truly aware of it now as we shuffled slowly towards the Polish border check point. It took an age, maybe only 40 minutes of waiting with seemingly nothing happening around us, to get to the front of the queue.
At this point I risk marital disharmony, but for you dear readers, anything. The Polish border guards have, it would appear, all been selected on the same basis as a 007 bond villain’s missus, the one James always seduces. Dressed in olive green army gear, their hair poker straight blond or brunette, sporting tight skirts, high heels, flat brimmed hats and little cheeky bit of apparel (guns), the all-female-under-35-ensemble strut about the place looking sultry. It almost took my mind off the sodding fact we were making an illegal attempt to enter the EU.
We folded the sheet and crumpled it up a bit. It worked, or more likely she didn’t care, the lass punched in all our info into the computer and we were through, having to scamper between gates as the one we’d been directed to had a rain cover less than 2m high, which we’d have removed in our eagerness to exit. Charlie’s chip number was noted down but, as no-one apart from the UK border has ever done, it wasn’t scanned to make sure it was actually in his body, that the passport was actually his – they usually just go on his photo! A last STOP sign brought us to a stop and the one, heavily outnumbered, male guard looked at us in disbelief, waving us through as though we were goons with IQs of 79 for actually stopping, at the STOP sign.
YEAH BABY! The sun shone, Scouting for Girls boomed out from the Polish radio station and a flock of angels gave us a tow into Poland, into the EU, the land of flat roads, TomTom guidance and Comprehensive Insurance. You beauty, we photographed the queue of folks trying to get into the Ukraine and grinned. Everything seemed to come back to life, colours radiated from buildings, signs flipped into recognisable Latin characters (albeit in the form of the unpronounceable Polish names), a huge MediaMart and Tesco floated past.
Just a short haul from the border and we rolled into Przemyśl, arranging to stay in the car park here and tootling off the 1km walk into town to get some Zloty to pay the hotel. I’m taken aback. The town’s beautiful. Ju found the Tourist Information office (a rarity for the past few months) and exited with a fist full of English-language leaflets. One of these explains the bunker next to the hotel, it was part of the Molotov Line. Quick bit of rather recent history:
Just before WW2, Hitler and Stalin secretly agreed to share out Poland between the two of ’em. When Germany invaded from the West on 1 Sept 1939, Russia invaded from the East a few days later. The two armies halted at the agreed line, which we’re now parked up on (well, almost, the line was along the River San). Like Berlin would later suffer, Przemyśl suffered the fate of being split in two, families were separated from loved ones, business owners from their businesses. The Soviets clearly didn’t much trust the non-agression pact they’d signed with Germany, and built up a line of 100km of concrete bunkers ready to defend against any aggression. Come the crack of dawn on June 22 1941, the aggression came as Hitler’s mad plan to try and conquer Russia was put into action. The Germans shelled the side of the river we’re currently on, the Russian’s providing no response since they were under orders not to attack unless the Germans crossed the line. Eventually that happened, and all hell broke loose with attacks and counter-attacks leaving much of the town in ruins. The Russian soldiers in the bunker next to us held out, and were burned alive by German flame throwers.
Despite all this, the town’s a calmly handsome little place. It’s been well restored, is colourful and it’s wall-to-wall consecrated ground of churches appears to have remained either miraculously unharmed, or more likely carefully rebuilt. We took a wander around, grabbed a couple of drinks from a cafe in the square, and then over the river before heading back here to chill out. We’re back in the EU and, yes, we do know how lucky we are!
A bucket load of pictures from Przemyśl:
The eagle above, and the photos of brass reliefs, are in a memorial to the Polish Eaglets, teenagers who fought and died for their country (I’m still trying to work out which bits of Poland were, erm, Poland during the past couple of centuries, the country’s been cut up more times than a motorhome in Rome).