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I have chosen to update this review, originally published some years ago, and updated in 2008, as we are very soon to undertake this very journey.
1) The photograph of myself driving at 220km/hr (134mph) was taken on a de-restricted motorway in Germany. At the time of writing this is still a completely legal act as long sections of the motorway still have no speed limit there.
Adittionally I am a very experienced driver of some 30 years standing and cover an annual mileage of between 25,000 - 30,000, around 10% of which is on German autobahn.
2) The photograph was taken by my wife, in the passenger seat, and not by myself!
3) I have NEVER attempted to drive at anywhere near such a high speed in this country.
4) I could never condone the use of excessive speed under any circumstances, indeed driving at almost twice the speed limit here I regard as an act only carried out by the criminally insane.
NOW TO THE JOURNEY
I had been toying with the idea of writing about our road journey to my wife's home town in Poland for some while, when I read an excellent review by Duncan (torr) about Krakow. Inspired, specifically by his comments at the end, regarding ways to travel there, the time seemed right. In response to his "arduous two day road journey" remark, I can only say that unless you are a thoroughly experienced and competent driver, and additionally really ENJOY driving, then YES, this is indeed too arduous a journey to be contemplating making by road.
In order to show you how arduous a jorney this can be, I have published some photographs taken on our outward journey, just before Christmas 2005. On that particular journey two very long motorway stops in Germany, lost us well over two and a half hours on the first day - we never found out the reason for these hold ups either, which always makes such a delay doubly frustrating. On the second day of that journey the snow fell hard and consistantly almost the whole way through Poland, adding around three hours to our six hour second days driving.
From the number of people both here, and in Poland, who have shown more than a passing interest in our twice yearly road journey from our home in Brighton, South East England, to Mrs R's family home in Mielec, South East Poland, it seemed that it may just be of interest to some of you too.
We have now, in total, driven this same route fifteen times and are very soon to embark on our sixteenth trip. I also flew three times from Gatwick to Krakow (on LOT Polish Airlines) in 2001, but have never attempted the journey by coach or train.
My first journey, in September 2001, seemed like a really big adventure. In truth as an experienced driver and motoring enthusiast I had always dreamed of crossing Europe, particularly in order to experience Germany's de-restricted autobahn. However, to be entirely honest, Poland had not featured as a destination in any previously planned motoring itinerary! Always having enjoyed long journeys by car, particularly as the driver, the idea of actually getting into the car (a Vauxhall Omega V6 at the time) and driving solo the 1145.2 mile route, did not faze me in the least.
For those of you wishing to drive to Krakow, the mileage is a mere 955 miles from the ferry port at Calais.
What did faze me however, were the sheer number of languages involved, potentially, en-route and the possibility of something actually going wrong with the car. For that reason, the obvious and sensible thing to do was to take out a comprehensive continental break down insurance - very conveniently done with the RAC through Hoverspeed with whom I had the return passage booked.
In order to reach my destination, the planned "E40" route runs through France, Belgium, Germany and then west to east over most of Poland itself. Just in case, I had purchased, and deposited in the glove box, a European phrase book. Ten years later (having swapped the car twice), to my shame, it still resides in the glove box and has never been used!
Why Poland? Well many of you reading this already know the answer to that one! For those of you who do not, there lies an entirely different and altogether more romantic tale. That first journey was to bring my fiancée back to England, subsequent ones have been in order to visit her family twice a year……
……I'm sure that you are all intelligent enough to fill in the blanks on that one!
Here comes a rude awakening! We are booked on a 5.50am Channel Tunnel train from Folkstone, it takes an hour and fifteen minutes to reach the tunnel from here in Brighton. We always, whatever the time of day, leave an extra half an hour in hand for accidents or hold ups and need to check-in half an hour before the train departs.
Yes folks, it is 2.50am and the alarm is going off! I, the driver, have been in bed since around 8.00pm, never sleep all that well going to bed so early - the anticipation of a long drive tends to wake me well before the alarm anyway. I am a morning person, there is no problem with getting up however early the hour. Mrs R. on the other hand is pitifully slow to get going in the morning.
The car is always fully packed the night before, only our overnight "grip" bag goes into the boot as we depart for Dover. It no longer surprises me now, it certainly used to, just how many people are out and about on the south east's roads at 4.00a.m.
Summer or winter the journey always starts in the dark, on very familiar roads this is no hardship, unless of course it is winter and they are covered in ice, we live half way up a very steep hill, making the first half mile of the jurney, potentially, the most stressful of all!
Looking at the map of England, you might be expecting us to drive due east of here along the coast to Dover. Not a chance that we would make it there by 5.20a.m. on the notoriously twisting but scenic A259 route! So into the darkness we head north on the A23 London Road, which turns into the M23, passing Gatwick Airport, before we start heading east for the first time on the M25. Half an hour after leaving home we sometimes feel the need for a quick loo stop at Clacketts Lane Services in Kent, a strange ghostly aura pervades this place at night. More often than not though, we arrive in Folkstone without stopping. Through the Sussex, Surrey and Kent countryside we have seen little but headlights in the darkness.
We branch off the M25 onto the M26, the "link" motorway to the M20. The M26 is the one motorway I always dread a hold up on, there are no junctions, no way off of it until the M20 is reached near Maidstone. Having joined the M20 you are able to sense Dover and the continent in sight, you share the road here with far more foreign vehicles than English ones.
Approaching Ashford - at least in the summer - the sun is just starting to rise to our left. In the old days it was the last few miles coming down into Dover that I most enjoyed, after the M20 finishes and turns into the A20 at Folkstone. Here you climb quite steeply, through a tunnel to find yourself on top of the white cliffs immediately to the west of Dover. Now, coming off the M20 before Folkstone, the check-in at the Channel Tunnel is somewhat of an anti-climax.
Dropping down into the port there is always a spectacular view of the ferries, especially in winter when everything is lit, Dover Ferryport really is a non-stop 24 hour business. We top the car up with BP Ultimate fuel,
Pictures of Everything that starts with S ...
At 220km/h (134mph) on German Autobahn.
apply the headlamp converters (the Omega's lights had an automatic adjuster) and magnetic GB plate, then cross the road to the Hoverspeed terminal to check in.
** Sadly, since 8th November 2005 this service no longer operates - a great shame as it was a fast and stylish way to cross the English Channel. **
On our return journey, we always cross the Channel on P&O, giving me the chance to take a break from the journey and for us to enjoy a meal in Langan's Brasserie - no longer quite the pleasure it used to be as standards seem to have fallen somewhat over the years.
Christmas 2005, our Hoverspeed booking having been cancelled, and the money returned, we treied the Channel Tunnel for the first time. I always said that I would never go down that vast "hole in the ground", however the whole operation is so swift and painless that we now always reach the continent this way. For me, it remains the most boring way of reaching France, but saves over an hour on our journey time.
We have lost an hour now due to the time difference. As we drive off of the train (on the RIGHT please!) the clock in the car says that it is 6.20a.m. Gosh how I still miss the Omega's radio controlled self adjusting clock! It is of course 7.20am and we are heading out of Calais to pick up European route E40, which starts here, on which we will stay until we reach Gliwice in the Silesian region of Poland.
Having followed the "Dunkerque" sign, we travel north east through the very flat, uninteresting, agricultural area of this, most northern tip of France. E40 runs very close to the coast, but at no point do you actually get a glimpse of the sea. Do not get me wrong, I know that there is much of historical interest in this region, it is just that you fail to appreciate it as the landscape passes by the car window at 130km/hr (81mph, this being the national speed limit in France). In fact we travel a little faster than that, the local traffic seems to flow along this uncannily smoothly surfaced, non-toll, motorway at about 90mph. There is little traffic congestion, you only slow occasionally when one lorry pulls out to overtake another, E40 is only two lanes wide up to the border.
Since originally wrioting this review, at which time we relied soley on maps and road signs, we are now guided by Mr Tom, out TomTom GPS, which is actually a Godsend, not only for route directions - but more critically to tell us of prevailing speed limits, he also is set to read my speed in Km/hr and give me speed warnings if I exceed foreign speed limits.......particularly useful in France and Belgium!
We have driven for little more than thirty minutes through France and at Adinkerk have unceremoniously crossed the border into Belgium. Only a "Welcome to Belgium" sign and a reduction in the speed limit from 130 km/hr to 120km/hr (75mph) makes you aware of this fact. Here the faster driving Belgians seem to take little notice of the speed limit, a 100mph cruising speed seems quite normal to most.
During the last couple of years we have found Belgian motorways to be far more ridgidly policed, speed cameras are now widespread too and generally the average speeds on Belgian motorways has dropped markedly.
Whilst nearly all of the motorway through Belgium is three lanes, there are parts of it in obvious need of re-surfacing. Indeed as years pass it becomes worse - European road funding is being spent elsewhere obviously. At Brugge E40 takes a turn for the south east, we leave the coast behind us in order to travel almost 1000 miles, due east, inland.
E40 through Belgium is not the most inspiring of routes from a scenic point of view. Belgian drivers keep us well awake though, from my experience, on the whole, they are the worst motorway drivers in Western Europe.
Brussels provides some interest, a couple of junctions to negotiate in order to stay on E40, the R0, their equivalent of the M25, always seems to remain free flowing. The motorway cuts right through the centre and over the top of the city on a huge bridge, descending from which to the east there is a view of the airport. R0 loops all the way around the north of the city before sending us on our way towards Liege, soon afterwards we reach Aachen and are into………
…..land of the car! It has taken three hours to cross France and Belgium, we will spend twice as long driving through Germany, from the far west to the far east. Here there are still long stretches of de-restricted motorway, the only ones in Europe.
At somewhere around 11.30a.m, European time, we pull off the motorway for the first time at a service station high on the hill overlooking Cologne to the east. On my first journey, in the petrol powered Omega, refuelling was required here, with just under 300 miles covered since leaving Calais. Our current, diesel powered, Subaru, is still almost half full, however it is time for us to stand up, have a little walk and to relieve ourselves. We always travel with our coolbox (on the floor behind my seat), containing fresh fruit, sandwiches and my favourite fruit loaf. In the summer we have cold (still) water in there too. A flask of black coffee accompanies us too. This particular service station sells superb German sausages served in a fresh, warm bread roll. Those of you who know me are well aware of my opinions on "fast" or "junk" food outlets, but this is in another league!
Incidentally, there is an attendant looking after the superbly clean toilets here, 50 Cents each are expected for the "use of", always seems a little steep to me - 40p for a pee!
Back on the autobahn, ten minutes later we are crossing the Rhine on a huge and mighty impressive steel motorway bridge. Far below us are large barges, plying their trade on this very busy commercial waterway and port. The twin towers of the fabulous Gothic Cologne Cathedral have been in sight for around five miles, we now pass them to our left.
Cologne is the largest major city en-route for many hours now, until we reach Dresden in the far east. Driving this west to east route across Germany, the cultural and economic differences after all these years of "unification" are still plainly obvious to see. From the expensive luxury cars sharing the road with us to the west, through to the housing stock, visible from the motorway, everything your eyes tell you still points to there being a vast difference in living standards between what used to be West and East Germany.
From Cologne through to Siegen the route is undulating with some dramatic forested valley views, this is hilly, rather than mountainous scenery, but this section of the journey is far from boring. Due to the hills and some surprisingly tricky corners, no English motorway is like this, the speed limit is restricted to 130km/hr on this mostly two lane section of autobahn. There is usually so much traffic through from Cologne to Giessen that speed limits tend to be rather academic anyway.
It is at Giessen that there is a short break in the autobahn, the only break in continuous motorway driving between Calais and Krakow. There are several ways around this town, we usually find ourselves on the northern "ring".
Soon after passing Giessen we are stopping to refuel the Subaru with Aral (a BP brand) fuel. Aral have not only very good quality petrol and diesel fuels but also have the best service stations and shops. German autobahn fuel is not cheap, similar in cost indeed to English non-motorway service station fuel prices. We take the welcome opportunity to relieve ourselves again and have another coffee and a bite to eat. Providing the traffic has not been too heavy it will be mid afternoon, in winter dusk is approaching and now we are about to start the crazy dash for the Polish border.
Crazy, because out here in Eastern Germany the speed limits disappear, as does, largely, the traffic. There are long stretches of autobahn, three lanes wide, perfectly surfaced too, where you are able to see a couple of miles into the distance. If you are intending to take the opportunity, as we do, to drive "flat out" then I do advise the use of dipped headlights, even on a bright sunny day.
On that first, solo, journey out here in the Omega, my nerves played strange tricks when driving at over 100mph. My palms became very sweaty, something that I had never experienced before. However, now given plenty of experience at very high speed driving, I am now surprisingly relaxed, no more sweaty palms! Cruising here at twice the UK speed limit. It is remarkable that, in a good, ordinary, saloon car, there is such a lack of the sensation of speed.
Please be assured that we DO NOT travel at 140mph on wet roads, nor when (always in winter) the temperature is below freezing point, even though the roads are well treated to prevent icing.
** 2007 Note ** It does NOT always freeze in winter! Our Christmas 2006 journey was remarkable due to the INCREASING temperature as we headed east. Freezing at Folkstone, by the time we reached Cologne it was +6 degrees and remained so for the rest of our journey. Global warming or a one off freak winter?
A highlight of the journey are the three castles or monasteries, never have really found out which, at Chemnitz, each facing one another on top of three hills, two to the south of the autobahn, one to the north. Unfortunately in the winter it is by this stage likely to be dark, it was here, in 2005, that we ran into a blizzard - lasting some three hours, the snow fell so thick and fast that all I could do was keep the car moving, you could only see the car in front of you, below 30mph the car "bogged down" above 40mph you were risking your life through poor visibility.
Next comes the wonderful cultural and yet highly industrialised city of Dresden. E40 largely flies over the top of the city, again particularly spectacular by night when everything is lit up. This is the last encounter that we are likely to have with heavy traffic in Germany, from here it is a straight and very fast run to the border, about 45 minutes away.
On a good day, a perfect "clean run" would get us to Gorlitz on the Polish German border at around 5.00p.m. It has been done, but is not usually! On occasion it has been as late as 9.00p.m when we have stopped at the huge border post. We were rather surprised that the border controls were still in place in the summer of 2004, Poland has after all been a member of Europe since January 2004. Pre-Europe the wait here was anything up to an hour in order to cross into Poland, now it seems to have been cut drastically, in the course of our last three crossings we have been delayed no more than 10 minutes.
** 2007 Update ** That was a fate tempting statement if ever there was! On our last trip - Christmas 2006, we were delayed for no less than an two and a half hours in BOTH directions. Thank the now huge migrant population of Polish workers - probably around three-quarters of a million of them returning home from all over Europe for Christmas. Apparently (so we heard on Polish radio the following day) the day after we crossed into Poland they had caught a drugs cartel on our very border crossing! For the first time on the return journey, the German border guards decided to search our car - for cigarrettes. Cigarettes in Germany appear to be half the UK price - in Poland they remain at a mere £1 a packet. Neither of us smoke, nor do we bring them back for friends who do. Having thoroughly searched our over-night bag, the polite German guards (one male the other female) waved us on our way.
This crossing has not been without its incidents over the years, primarily my first experience with it in September 2001 and last December. We have seen many cars and vans searched here, Ukrainians particularly seem to be suspected of smuggling, often their vehicles will be stripped to the bare bones. Travelling in a right hand drive, English registered car, until January 2007, we had never been searched, probably just as well considering the amount of meat and various forms of plant life - strictly for the garden you understand - that we have "imported" over the years.
On that first occasion I was hours behind schedule, the German border guard had inspected my passport; I naturally assumed that I was free to go. The young female Polish army officer was initially not amused as I virtually ran her over as she stepped out in front of the Omega. Fortunately she was a good natured young lady and saw the funny side to a situation that even I failed to find amusing!
in 2005 we arrived at the border crossing having cleared the snowstorm some 40 miles earlier, the temperature was however well below freezing. A German guard appeared from the right, walked up to the front of our Honda whilst his colleague was inspecting the passports, and gave the front of the car a swift kick! Mrs R. restrained me from getting out of the car and asking him what he thought he was doing. As we drove off I looked in the mirror to see a pile of snow on the ground - he could not read the number plate and had kicked off the impacted snow from it!
All of this is of historical interest only now as since 2009 the border between Germany and Poland has been fully open, saving much time. However, I am in a sense pleased that I experienced the "Checkpoint Charlie" atmosphere here on the earlier journeys - it will never return.
Deceptively, having cleared the massive boarder post you continue driving on a German autobahn for maybe a mile, this then ends abruptly, pitching you onto a poorly lit, single carriageway road. Welcome to…..
For the very first time, in April 2010, we were on Polish motorway having crossed the border, however, we soon have to detour off of it, as you drive for hundreds of miles without seeing a single fuel station, diesel fuel is cheaper in Poland than elswewhere on this journey so we find ourselves detourring into Boleslawiec (the first Polish town of any size) in order to top up with BP Ultimate Diesel. With a diesel car this is only our second fuel stop.
In the winter, summer too if I feel sufficiently tired, we stop overnight at the Hotel Piast in the very centre of Boleslawiec.
The motorway from Golnice to Wroclaw was famously built using forced labour by the Germans. It was constructed from huge blocks of concrete. In 1945 I am sure that driving on such a road would have been a revelation. Between the years 2001 and 2004, this road was simply a national disgrace, shocking! Never re-surfaced, or in any other way maintained apparently, the concrete blocks, exposed to extreme weather conditions - particularly in winter, had moved, leaving a step of anything up to two inches from one to the next. Many cars and lorries finished their days on this road from hell during the last couple of decades. I wish that I were able to describe to you what driving on a surface like this is like - that in a big comfortable car! In a Polish Fiat 126 or Polonez even, it must have been akin to torture.
Now all that has gone, since December 2005 the new, completely reconstructed carriageway has been fully open.
What I have not as yet done is touch on the simply abysmal driving standards generally in Poland. On this very piece of road, during the construction work, we witnessed a full sized coach overtaking - on the wrong side of the contraflow cones! Everything about Polish roads is dangerous, from the drivers, to the appalling surfaces in places. Even the brand new motorways lack a hard shoulder. In towns and cities you have highly dangerous traffic lights (pedestrians and motorists being given the green light at once) to contend with too.
One other thing that you notice, as a driver in Poland, is just how remarkably quiet your car seems on Polish roads. In simple terms that is a by-product of Polish roads lacking any form of surface dressing. The road surfaces are extremely smooth, great for fuel consumption too - very low rolling resistance. Lethal all the same, no grip, causing woefully poor stopping distances, especially when it rains. Drainage is well below the standards that you would be used to here too, even in towns the roads flood very easily.
From Wraclaw there are many miles of properly surfaced, very good quality motorway, funded entirely by European grant aid. In places it is even three lanes wide heading out east towards Gliwice. This is an interesting part of the journey, especially in the winter when there is snow on the ground; the scenery is surprisingly similar to that on the steeper inclines on the M6 through Cumbria.
Dropping down into Gliwice we are approaching the very industrial Silesian region, an urban sprawl centred on the coal mining city of Katowice. For the first three years we did not have the benefit of a motorway through this region and it was by far the worst part of the whole journey. At last the one missing link at Gliwice itself, has been opened.
This saves us having to crash over the road with no surface past the huge Opel factory, Tesco store (oh yes, everywhere now in Poland) and then through the grim city centre of Gliwice itself. The final seven or eight kilometres opened in December 2005, saving at least 30 minutes on our journey time.
However, there is a problem on Polish motorways. Unlike their "A" type roads where there are lots of friendly cafés, bars and roadside restaurants, not to mention picnic spots, on E40 there are only two places to stop between Boleslawiec and the proper service station on the paid motorway the other side of Katowice. Two service stations in 300 miles - I'll let you imagine how busy and squalid are the toilets there! Motorway service stations are just a not a feature of Polish life currently.
Between Chorzow and Balice Airport (Krakow) we cough up 14pln (zloty) - to use the privately funded toll motorway. This is paid in two halves at toll booths, one outside Katowice, the other close to Balice. It is money well spent, I have used the "old" E40 route from Katowice to Krakow, it is torturous (twisty and hilly) and takes you right through the centre of these two large cities. Conditions on the toll motorway are good. It has three lanes where it needs to i.e. up the steeper hills, continuous hard shoulders, proper crash barriers and the two service stations are modern and clean - having surprisingly good restaurants too. The views from this undulating road are good, you can see for many miles over Krakow and to the east from here - providing that the pollution levels are low. One point of interest is that on this road, you pass within 10 miles of Oswiecim, better known to most of you I suspect as Auschwitz.
The motorway now carries us all the way around Krakow, again this is a huge time saver, our earlier journeys having taken us through many miles of shabby south and eastern suburbs of this historic and beautiful city. There are up to date Polish road maps showing E40 as a motorway continuing from Krakow all the way out to the Ukrainian border. Sadly for the foreseeable future it ends quite abruptlyto the east of Wieliczka - home of the wonderful salt mines.
At this point, we have a decision to make as to which way to go. According to the map, the most obvious route is to stay on E40 until reaching either Tarnow or Debica before turning north to Mielec. However, this is a notoriously dangerous road, we have seen more accidents here than we care to remember, on one occasions involving two lorries and a certain fatality. On this stretch of E40 you dice with death in a game that we have come to know as "Wacky Races". The road is mostly three lanes wide, one in each direction, with an overtaking lane down the middle. Regularly you will witness a terrifying spectacle of "double overtaking" here, I am a pretty fearless driver but this practice - and others on this lethal road scare the hell out of me!
Depending on the number of accidents, the journey from Krakow to Mielec is highly unpredictable in length, it should take around two and a half hours to cover the last 90 miles, five hours has been known.
In short, we have stopped using this road, unless weather conditions (snow) are so bad that the hillier northern route is closed. A relative who travels regularly to Krakow put us onto this a couple of years ago. Looking at the map, the "B" roads look twisty and appear to be further in distance. Surprisingly we drove one day to Krakow on them and found that it saved a good 30 minutes and was actually around 10 miles shorter too.
Turning left (north) at Wieliczka we leave E40 for the last time. The minor road twists and turns its way eventually to join road number 777 at Nowe Brzesko. In the summer, or better yet, on a clear winters day, the drive that now follows is truly scenic, the best of the whole journey, over rolling hills and through very traditional Polish small towns and villages. There is far less traffic on these roads than on the commercial E40, driving conditions are much safer too.
The country route roughly follows the course of Poland's arterial river the Wisla, which passes through both Krakow and Warsaw. Although we are around 500 miles inland here, this is still a wide river, there are a few ferry crossing points, but the only bridge on our route is close to the small town of Szczucin. It is here that Mrs R. starts to feel close to home, not only is Mielec sign posted for the first time, but on a large billboard there on the side of a house is advertised Tesco in Mielec, the biggest supermarket for miles around.
The last 20 miles of the journey from Szczucin is undertaken on narrow, twisty and poorly surfaced country roads. Once again, the more direct looking route is the longer, but prettier, taking us past my wife's grandparents smallholding in Kosowka and through long ribbon like villages before reaching the main road. So bad was the surface on this road that when we returned for England in July (2005) it was closed for total re-construction - we had no choice but to take the "long" route which turned out to be quicker anyway!
As those of you who have read my previous reviews will know, I regard this area as my second home. For my wife it will forever in a sense be "home". The very last part of our journey, down through the woods (creepy at night in the summer there is often a mist hovering about two feet above the ground here), passing the Skoda then Opel garages always seems to quicken the pulse.
Just as you enter the town, high on a plinth is proudly displayed an AN2 (a small Russian troop carrier) aircraft, built for many years right here in Mielec at the PZL Aircraft Company. A couple of years ago they started to build a by-pass here to take all the heavy commercial traffic out of the heart of the elegant Old Town. Unfortunately that was about as far as it got - a start!
Our journey finally ends a couple of miles to the north of Mielec, hopefully before midnight!.