How campervanning Poland during the pandemic gave us hope for the future of travel

Mike and Anne have decided to wait out the pandemic in a campervan in Poland
Mike and Anne have decided to wait out the pandemic in a campervan in Poland © HoneyTrek

Eternal honeymooners Mike and Anne Howard of HoneyTrek began the year with plans to travel in Europe, but when the coronavirus pandemic derailed their plans, they did what they do best: hit the road in a van.

“I heard the Czech borders are going to close soon,” whispered our waiter during our anniversary dinner. The vegan restaurant had a whimsical forest theme with vine-covered walls and a canopy of fairy lights, but COVID-19 creeping across Europe had cast a cloud over the tables. On March 4th, before the coronavirus hit the global fan, we flew here for two travel conferences. On the way to the airport, one event got canceled and the second was called by the time we landed in Berlin.

While this was concerning, we were optimistic about Plan B and an adventure we’d long been dreaming about – campervanning Eastern Europe. We found the perfect van at Indie Campers and embarked on a multi-country road trip. We were just five days into our journey when that waiter laid our fate on the table. Our minds raced, “Do we head to Slovakia, hide out here in the Czech Republic, or go to Poland where we can explore our ancestry and live off pierogies?” Most foreigners were scrambling to return home, but for us, that meant thousands of dollars in flights, quarantine in a camper storage facility in Texas (FYI a 1985 Toyota Sunrader is what we call home), and resurfacing in a country with much higher infection rates. So we motored to Poland and the border shut behind us…indefinitely.

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Mike and Anne Howard found a nearly empty Krakow © HoneyTrek

Starting in Krakow

We had a feeling our sightseeing days were numbered, so we headed straight for the Unesco World Heritage City of Krakow. Some shops, restaurants, and tours were still on offer, but this was not the snap-happy tourist haven it’s usually known to be. A busker played a bittersweet sonata on the cello, and it echoed through the empty streets. A souvenir shopkeeper was slumped over his glass case of tchotchkes, no doubt thinking about the loss of revenue in the coming weeks. We went to the old Jewish Quarter for potato pancakes and a scribbled sign said it was their last day for sit-down service.

The entire country and world was waiting for “further notice” and the air reeked of uncertainty. When the government laid out the rules in the coming days, no one felt any better. And as travelers, we felt even worse. All cultural institutions, visitor centers, restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, national parks, and really any services you’d want on a road trip were on lockdown.

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Inside Mike and Anne's vanlife accommodation in Poland © HoneyTrek

On the road in Poland

If we weren’t seasoned travelers (on the road full-time since January 2012) and didn’t have this self-contained Fiat camper, we’d probably be freaking out. Being trapped in a foreign land (not to mention a 120-sq-ft space with your spouse and not knowing when you can go home) could sound like a nightmare, but we had everything we needed to safely and happily self-isolate. That said, a shutdown camping sector wasn’t going to make it easy to meet our basic needs. Drinking water, waste disposal, and a safe place to camp were all in question, but one thing was certain – there would be no place to plug in our rig. To have enough battery life to run the lights, water pump, heater, and charge electronics, we need to drive around at least two hours per day. The recommended action of “shelter in place” would have to be “shelter in motion.”

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Mike and Anne pause near the Tatra Mountains © HoneyTrek

So we took to the backroads, far from urban areas and the feeling of a zombie apocalypse. Guided by our trusty Lonely Planet Poland eBook and our Park4Night app (the Europe boondocking bible!), we headed south to the Tatra Range. When we pulled up to this handmade picnic table and fire ring overlooking the jagged snowcapped peaks, we knew we were going to be okay. Poland has the magnificent Carpathian Mountains in the south, the Baltic Sea in the north, and upwards of 10,000 lakes in between, so finding our own hideaway (especially because we're virtually the only travelers left) hasn’t been hard. Park4Night and its online camper community has led us to so many incredible spots, from tree-lined riversides to vineyards serving wine under the table. It has also steered us to Poland’s ever-illusive water spigots and some of our most heart-warming interactions.

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Mike and Anne were supported by the kindness of strangers © HoneyTrek

Life on the farm

When our reservoir was bone dry, we turned to the app and saw a nearby farm listed as friendly to campers. We texted the owner about our plight and, like a miracle on so many levels, she invited us over. When this petite older lady opened the gate, we expected her to point us to a corner of the yard; instead, she greeted us with big smiles and insisted that we join her for coffee and homemade goat cheese. Of course, we know the social distancing guidelines, but how could we say no to such fearless generosity?

With the magical powers of Google Translate conversation-mode, we shared stories from our journey and learned how she single-handedly runs her farm of horses, goats, rabbits, and ducks. When we told her about Mike’s Polish roots and pierogie Christmas dinners, she invited us back for a cooking lesson. We stuffed cabbage with lentils and put them in the oven. The next step she said, “We must bake it for an hour and share a bottle of wine while we wait.” We spent five incredible days at Kozia Zagroda, learning to milk goats, watching the newborn pony practice its trot, and gathering around the table for traditional Polish meals. Before we left, we translated our guest book entry about “Eva The Travel Angel” and, COVID-19 be damned, it ended in a weepy-eyed hug. She sent us off with the “anti-vee-roos” (a bottle of her quince vodka) and gave us hope that the spirit of travel will prevail.

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Now Mike and Anne have to decide where to go next © HoneyTrek

So where do we go from here? The internal EU borders are set to open up in early May, and despite our airline canceling all flights for the summer, we have a new ticket booked to the US, where we will be reuniting with our own camper, “Buddy.” While we’ve always known the virtues of road trips and RVing, we have a newfound confidence that a house on wheels is one of the safest ways to explore this post-coronavirus world. If we can have an incredible time campervanning in a foreign country at the height of a pandemic, the road will only get smoother from here.

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