Thursday, September 16, 2010
A Very Wet Day
High on our long list of ‘Must do’s’ in Krakow, also known as “The Schedule” was The Dunajec River Gorge rafting trip. We had planned to do it on the first day of good weather we had which according to the forecast was Saturday. The Dunajec river is the natural border between Poland and Slovakia. It breaks through beautiful limestone mountains, creating some of the most incredible, narrow and sharply winding gorge in rocks. It is considered to be the most glorious part of the Pieniny Mountains. We had high hopes for this trip and expected nothing but a relaxing day admiring the nature.
Agnes’ research said that it was a simple bus ride from the Krakow bus station direct to the top of the mountain where the rafting ride left. Therefore full of confidence, we decided to leave our apartment at noon. Unfortunately when at the station we looked into buses to the destination point, Sromowce Kąty village, there didn’t appear to be any. However after asking at the information point, Agnes found that it SHOULD be possible to get there by several buses but by no means guaranteed to meet every connection. We jumped on our first bus which was really just a minivan to a non-descript town, full in the knowledge that it was a gamble. After an uncomfortable one hour journey, we arrived. It seemed like our gamble had backfired – because it was Saturday there was no bus to Sromowce Kąty at all. We were running out of time; last rafting trip started at 4pm. Some more investigating followed and it turned out that there was a bus was leaving soon to yet another small town near to Sromowce Kąty where we could either walk a few miles to the departure point or hope a bus came along. We took this bus only to find when we got off it that the final connection had left five minutes before and the next one was over an hour away. We were stuck in a tiny mountain hamlet, with no shelter and not in the best of moods but surprisingly chirpy. The air was crystal clear, views to die for and that calming silence…
Fortune favours the brave, the bus we assumed had left five minutes earlier was ten minutes late and we grateful jumped on it to the rafting station and the end of an unexpectedly difficult journey.
The rain had stopped thankfully; we paid our 44zl and made our way to the water’s edge for the next ride down the river. I didn’t really know what to expect of the boat, what I did expect was it to be bigger and higher off the water! It was no more than 3 metres wide by about 6 metres long and riding about 30 cm off the water which wasn’t much in calm water, I wondered how much came over when we went through the rough water. We were actually lucky to be able to take the ride at all; regulations prohibit rafting rides when the water level is above a certain level which was the case a few days previous, today was the first day that the levels had fallen to a level which allowed them to take place.
Despite being very close to the sometime quite rough water and not wearing a life jacket we felt very safe on board the wooden boat and just relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. The raft man, called in Polish “flisak” skillfully navigated the raft down the river with a pole in a similar way that boats are punted along the river Cam in Cambridge; only the river is very wild in places. He did a pretty amazing job and it was clear to see why it takes six years to train to become a fully qualified Flisak. The Flisak trade on the Dunajec river is centuries-old. Originally, Flisacy used their wooden rafts to fish the once plentiful salmon in the river or to transport goods downstream.
Clad in a round-brimmed black felt hat decorated with small white cowry shells, a white shirt, beige slacks and a dark blue felt waistcoat cheerfully hand-embroidered with colourful flowers, our raft man easily sank a two-meter long wooden pole into the swirling greenish-brown waters of the Dunajec. Thanks to his extensive training he knew everything about the history and the environment of the area. He spoke only Polish which was fine for Agnes but not for the handful of non Polish speakers on the boat. She translated the most important and interesting stuff for me but the stunning scenery more than made of for the fact I couldn’t understand the commentary. The river crosses in and out of Slovakia through some of the most incredible scenery I have ever seen in Europe. It was nice to just relax and let the river carry us down for almost 2 hours. I couldn’t help but think what the ridiculous Health & Safety brigade in the UK would have made of the whole operation. Small wooden boats, with only a few inadequate life jackets for those who asked for them on board, no seat belts, no long drawn out pre departure safety announcements. It was pure bliss, a long standing tourist tradition with a 100% safety record in over a hundred years just allowed to get on with its business without interference from those who think they know best. The only incident they have ever had was someone jumping overboard and swimming to the Slovakian shore in order to escape to the west via Austria in Communist times. We could learn from this live and let live attitude.
It started to rain towards the end of the ride as we approached the end point at the spa town of Szczawnica. We were both starving so headed for a small restaurant where we bother enjoyed warm coffee and tea. We had no idea of what time the bus back to Krakow left so we made a beeline for the bus stop. After an uncomfortable walk up hill and after initially standing on the wrong side of the road we found a bus stop apparently going to Krakow. It made no sense at all, a bus was due, or so we thought but nothing arrived and we were left with an hour’s wait to the next advertised bus, not even knowing if it would arrive. We were now sheltering in a flight of stairs contemplating the possibility that we could be stranded in Szczawnica and that an expensive taxi ride would be our only option if no bus came. Thankfully it did and we settled down to 2 hour bus ride back to Krakow. Tired, uncomfortably squeezed but incredibly satisfied with everything we have seen and experienced that day.
That was the end of our first day and what a memorable one it was, for more reasons than one.