Polish bus companies do not really think much about their passengers’ comfort. Traveling by bus there is more like going from point “A” to point “B” as quickly and efficiently as possible. The simple creature comforts offered by U.S. companies like Greyhound are extreme luxuries in Poland, where they cram buses with as many seats as possible to maximize revenue. It was under those conditions that September 28 we traveled from Krakow to Renata’s native city of Chełm, which is located just 35 km from the Ukrainian border.
The trip took roughly seven hours and a half, and we arrived there around 10:45 PM. Renata’s father (who I had met a year earlier in New York) picked us up and drove us to their apartment building, where we were warmly received by her mother, and then went to bed.
My wife’s relatives speak no English, so she was instrumental in going back and forth translating the conversations. Her help was also invaluable around most non-tourist areas of the country, as I stubbornly insisted in going to everyday places like supermarkets and stores that are not usually frequented by tourists.
The next morning after breakfast, we were met by Renata’s uncle Marek (he and his wife Iwona are amateur marathonists who participated the NY Marathon in 2009), who drove us to have lunch at Pstragowo http://pstragowo.gmina.chelm.pl , a nearby restaurant that serves fish that is sustainably raised on the premises. My choice was smoked trout that is served wrapped in two slabs of bacon, with a side of pickles and a small salad and potato pancakes. Of course that went well with a nice glass of Zywiec beer. According to the waitress, the place has become quite an international draw in recent years, attracting patrons from many nearby countries.
After that we headed to one of the local tourist attractions, the underground chalk tunnels http://www.podziemiakredowe.pl from where city residents extracted chalk from the Middle Ages until the 19th Century. Today two kilometers are visited by tourists every year – which includes a sighting of the mine’s ghost, Duch Bieluch (actually a man with a Darth Vader-like voice in a costume). According to some tourist information texts, the tunnels are unique to the world, and were used during World War II to shelter Jews from the Nazis (who subsequently destroyed several of them).
It is believed that the tunnels extend to as much as 15 kilometers – and many are still being discovered today. We also walked around town and visited two churches, including the Basilica of The Birth of the Virgin Mary, a church built on the city’s highest point. Later in the evening we stopped by a local bar, where we enjoyed a few drinks before going to bed.
The next day was more low-key. Renata took me for a walk around the city’s rynek and we did some shopping at the local Tesco (a large store comparable to Wal-Mart). We spent some time with the family of Renata’s friend Aneta (her brother Radosław and his wife are English teachers there), where I had the opportunity to drink a few shots of bimber, a highly strong kind of vodka that is mostly homemade (it is rarely commercialized in the country). Later that evening we returned to Iwona and Marek’s to watch a volleyball match between Brazil and Poland – which Brazil won 3×0.
The following morning (Friday, October 1), we bade farewell to Chełm (Iwona presented me with a delicious salad zapiekanka) and boarded an even more crammed bus for a three-and-a-half hour trip to the country’s Capital, Warsaw – which is today considered ‘the nightlife capital of Eastern Europe.’