Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Soggy skiing in Zwardon

Back in the 80s I had a Chris de Burgh album called Into The Light.  One of the songs (I can’t remember which one and I lost the cassette years ago) had one of my all-time favourite lyrics:

                “The cafés are all deserted, the streets are all wet again,
There’s nothing quite like an out of season holiday town in the rain.”

It’s simple and evokes, at least for this Englishman, a crystal-clear picture of resort towns like Hastings and Clacton and Skegness and Blackpool when the tourists have all gone home, the pier is closed for winter renovation, the pubs and chip shops and cheap amusements arcades are empty, and the wind and sea is howling in on a wave of salt spray.

The song came into mind last week, but not because I was at the coast.  I was, to paraphrase, in an end of season ski resort in the rain……

For the past 6 years, we’ve taken a week in February to go to Szczyrk in the Beskidy mountains bordering Poland and Slovakia and the Czech Republic.  The kids have learned to ski, my wife joins them, and I rest my knees and hips, aching from the cold, either in the snug warmth of a mountainside bar nursing hot chocolate or mulled beer, or (more frequently these days) work in the lonely confines of our hotel room. 

I remember the first year the snow was deep and crisp and even, we tobogganed on the slopes near the hotel between ski lessons, and it snowed every day.  It was a winter wonderland to match anything on offer in Switzerland or Austria, France or Italy, but considerably cheaper, and we had a great time.  In successive years, although we always go the same week (since we’re locked into the winter holidays from school) the amount of snow has decreased progressively and the temperature risen so that last year the slope at Krasnal Ski School was open thanks to snow machines and surrounded by hills and forests that were more a grubby green than sparkling white.  Climate change or global warming, or as my mate insists “merely a cyclical adjustment to the prevailing weather patterns” (and he has the cheek to say I use too many words!) is immaterial…..it is not as cold nor as snowy as it was five years ago.

But we go anyway, for the change in scenery and a breath of fresh air.  This has been particularly welcome this year as for some weeks Poland in general and Warsaw in particular has been smothered by a blanket of acrid smog several times heavier than is generally considered safe (or admitted to by the PiS Government).

But this year, unable to book in Szczyrk (we left it a bit late) we settled for a hotel in Zwardon.  This is a small town about 30 kilometres from our usual base, at a slightly higher elevation, and less developed.  It is literally on the border with Slovakia: the road from the village centre up to the hotel has a fence along one side that marks the frontier, and this swings round behind the hotel and back up to the road at the other end of the village where the main road crosses into the Slovakia.  More of which in moment….

The drive down was less than pleasant.  There was patchy fog and drizzly rain for the whole 245 mile drive, and roadworks close to Czestochowa forced a 10 mile detour off the highway and along some less than well-maintained country roads.  There had been little snow when we left home – the previous week had seen temperatures rise a few degrees above zero causing a thaw – and as we headed south even this dusting  thinned still further.  By the time we passed Katowice, with perhaps 70 miles to go, there were only a few patches here and there and we were seriously concerned about whether there would be any ski slopes open for business.

In the event, we didn’t need to worry.  As we passed Bielsko-Biala the road was rising up into the mountains and we saw the amount of snow increasing.  Then, just after Milowka, we went through a half-mile tunnel and came out into a blizzard.  In 15 minutes or so we slithered up the drive of the hotel on thick ice and knee deep snow.

The hotel, the Dworek Szwajcaria (in English, Swiss Manor House) stood just outside the village, on the side of a hill looking across into Slovakia.  It’s a big, rambling old place as the name suggests, operating as hotel since 1928, and before that as a private residence.  There are 18 comfortable and modernized rooms, a bar with adjacent kids’ playroom, a cosy restaurant serving very tasty and inexpensive Polish food, and free Wi-Fi throughout.  The staff were all very efficient and very friendly, and gave us some good recommendations for trips out of town.  No complaints at all, and I’m sure we’ll stay there again.

Zwardon itself is much smaller than Szczyrk, and apart from the single ski slope there was nothing else there.  Not a gift shop in sight, only a couple of grocery shops, a station (trains to Katowice every hour on the hour), some houses and that was about it.  Not even a restaurant that we noticed.  The slope itself was good, higher and steeper than our old friend Krasnal, with a chair lift and very reasonably priced ski passes.  At the bottom was a good café to buy your coffee and chocolate and tea and (of course) warm beers, as well as burgers, chips, pizza and zapiekankie (like a French bread pizza – delicious), and behind it a shop to rent your gear if needed.  The kids have their own stuff, but Ania rented a set of skis one day.

So while I beavered away at the hotel, with our cat for company (the hotel is pet-friendly so we were able to take her with us) mon famille were having a wonderful time on the slopes.  At least for the Sunday…..

Then the weather changed.  The temperature shot up several degrees and the rain swept in.  The snow began to thaw, and the whole place took on a grubby bedraggled look, as is usually the case when there is a snow-melt.  On the Monday afternoon, in need of some fresh air and tired from a morning skiing in drizzle, we decided to go for a drive into Slovakia.  We set off and crossed the border five minutes later in proper rain rather than drizzle, heading for a Slovakian ski resort a half an hours’ drive away according to the satnav on my wife’s phone.

A mile or so over the boarder we drove through a sizeable village and the difference a few extra years’ of EU subsidies makes became clear, as the well maintained Polish roads gave way to a single lane bumpy and pot-holed Slovakian road.  The houses and small grocery stores and roadside cafes were not dissimilar from those we are used to, but the pavements looked as ill-maintained as the roads and the poles carrying the telephone lines leaned this way and that.  There was little traffic about, and even fewer pedestrians.

A mile further on and the satnav turned us left onto a side road rising up between forested hills.  In better weather, it’s probably a nice road – there were some pretty detached houses in good sized plots along both sides – but in the strengthening rain and melting snow and ice it was less than pleasant.  A little further along, on a sharp left bend, we were directed to turn right onto another side road that looked more like a track between scruffy looking farm or light industrial sheds.  The snow was deeper here, packed and rutted and we decided further up it might well prove impassable.  We decided enough was enough, about turned with some difficulty and headed back to Poland.

We passed through Zwardon and headed on to Szczyrk.  The place has not changed at all in the year since our last visit, but like everywhere else on this wet and miserable day was uninviting.  We stopped in the middle of town, bought some delicious smoked goat’s milk cheeses called oszczypek at a road side stall (lovely served hot with lashings of cranberry jam), then crossed the street to a restaurant for a lunch that was as usual excellent and filling, the portions huge.   After that we headed back out of town, up into the higher elevations and through the resort of Wisla (from the hills just outside the village is the source of Poland’s main river of the same name that meanders all the way through the country, nearly a thousand miles, to the Baltic Sea) where we stopped at an ice-cream and coffee bar for a tasty cappuccino and ice-cream sundaes, then along the spine of the Beskidy range back to Zwardon. 

The rain continued unabated through Tuesday and Wednesday, and my loved ones skied between the showers while I carried on working at the hotel.  We drove out to Milowka and found a very good pizza parlour for evening meals, and on the Thursday spent the day on the slopes.  By now, much of the snow was gone, but the skiing was still ok on packed snow, and I was totally impressed by the improvement my kids showed since last year.  It was my wife’s birthday, so we had a good meal in the hotel restaurant in the evening, and sampled the local brew (it was actually Slovakian, but a very nice, strong, dark lager).  We packed to return home on Friday.

It was a better drive, with clear skies through mountains that were now virtually devoid of any snow, no fog or rain to delay us, and we made good time.  Then about 50 miles out of Warsaw it all changed, and we ran into a full-on blizzard.  By the time we reached home the front of the car was coated with an inch or so of packed snow and ice, the number plates invisible and the lights dangerously dimmed.

We were glad to be home, but it had been a good trip, despite the weather.