The dilapidated bus sputtered to a stop as I shakily crawled my way to the front. “Cześć,” I politely said to the driver as I carefully stepped onto the sidewalk, and he responded only with an unenthusiastic stare before closing the bus door behind me.
In this small town where my great grandfather had once lived, I got dropped off at the Polish equivalent of a quickie mart. Looking around, I could only see short and empty streets splayed out in all directions, dotted with one red roof after another, and separated by vast grassy fields. I discovered Maniowy right in the middle of its Sunday afternoon laze, and the drizzle encouraged its residents (all couple thousand of them) to remain indoors. Save for a cacophonous cow mooing proudly right in the center of town, I was alone.
Maniowy has two main attractions: a lake and a graveyard. And although my eyes told me to immediately march towards that stunning blue water glistening in the distance, my heart pulled me towards the cemetery filled with rows of somber, gray tombstones. I simply had to know who, if anyone, I might find there.
As I arrived at the gate to the Cemetery Chapel of St. Sebastian, thick, dark clouds accumulated above me and rain pat pat patted down. I donned an oh-so-fashionable navy poncho before creaking open the rusty entrance gate. The dreary day strangely seemed brighter in this place, with lush green grass and colorful flowers left behind from loved ones—and me, the blue ghost slowly roaming the premises.
Tenderly stepping row by row, I paused momentarily in front of each grave to examine the words etched in granite. I read the names and wondered, “Were you related to him? Did you know him? Were you friends?” None of the names I encountered matched my great grandfather’s, but I felt a warming sense of kinship to these people I didn’t know and who weren’t even alive. The bizarre sensation felt comforting and melancholy, all at once.
My phone’s alarm abruptly brought me out of my own thoughts and back to the present. The last bus back to town would arrive soon and I needed to be on it, regardless of how many more graves I had yet to visit. However badly I felt the urge to stay, I shuffled my way to the gate and let it clang shut behind me. My legs led me in one direction as I climbed up the hill back to the corner store bus stop, but every three steps I turned my head to look back. I said goodbye to the life that I lost, before I even had the chance to have it.
I’ll admit this is a much different post than what I normally publish here on Tremendous Times, but this was also a much different travel experience than I’d ever had before. Maniowy is hardly going to shoot to the top of the list for every tourist visiting Poland (seriously, I saw more farm animals than people while I was there), but it was a moving and delightful journey for me personally. And hey, it’s an excellent reminder that some of the best memories on a trip are made in the in the small towns, on the rainy days, in the strangest of attractions.
The problem is that small towns like Maniowy hardly exist on the internet—so even if you’re dreaming of a quaint, “living like a local” experience in some tiny town, it might be difficult to figure out where to go. I had a hell of a time figuring out how to even catch a bus to Maniowy in the town located 20 minutes away from there. If you’re thinking of visiting a small town for a refreshingly offbeat and memorable travel experience, here are a few key tips:
- Ask around. Presumably you haven’t found much about this destination online, so before you head off to a tiny town, see if any residents in a nearby (and slightly larger) city have any recommendations. Every country has its own intricacies that you will only learn about in person, and asking a hotel concierge, a bartender, or a store owner their input will help put things in perspective—and most importantly, let you know if it’s a safe spot to visit. My Couchsurfing host was able to tell me the best way to get to Maniowy and assured me it would not be dangerous (both of which Google could not tell me).
- Pack the essentials. Have enough water for the day, plenty of charge in your phone (and an external battery), and some snacks. It will make life easier and keep you from getting grumpy if there are no good food options or stores to grab water.
- Plan for plenty of time. Between miscommunication, general confusion, and Murphy’s Law, this will take longer than you expect. And while small towns can offer total rest and relaxation, it can also be stressful to feel like you’re diving into the unknown where not even Pinterest can help you. I got back to Krakow by 6:30pm or so, but was totally wiped out for the night, simply because I’d been figuring everything out as I went, so take into account how draining it can be.
- Remain hyper aware of your surroundings. It’s easy to spot a tourist pretty much anywhere, but especially in small towns where everyone knows each other. Take a look around when you arrive and make note of a few safe spaces to head in case things go south—a corner store, a church, a B&B.
- Communicate with the local language / Google Translate / charades skills. It’s much rarer to encounter English-speakers in small towns. I spoke only to one person in Maniowy, and the only reason we were really able to understand each other was because of Google Translate. And thanks to her, I was able to figure out the last bus back to town!
- Have a backup plan. Worst case scenario: you get stranded in this small town and have no idea what to do. So plan for the worst and it will help you put your mind at ease. I had Skype credit on my phone and was prepared to call a taxi in case I missed the last bus back to the main bus station in Nowy Targ.
- Remember that people are good. Looking at my advice, it seems kind of grim. I’m a positive person, I promise! While it’s always good to be on guard, don’t be afraid to trust your gut, let down the defenses, and have those wonderful human interactions that make traveling so fun.