Jacek Kiełpiński talks with Ewa Ciepielewska, Polish painter, lover and promoter of the Vistula, who sails from Cracow to Gdańsk and back on an annual Royal River Cruise (Flis Królewski), organizer of open air events on the Vistula and explorer of other European rivers.


They point fingers at you saying: this is Ciepielewska, the Vistula woman. What is there in this river?

This is just another planet. Different bon mots have come to my mind, like, for example, that the Vistula is the best spa center because I started bathing in it and when the television interviewed me, they asked me again and again: What, do you really you bathe in it???

When was that?

In 2010. There were no beaches on the Vistula in Warsaw then. Very few people went bathing in the river. Of course, not all places were good for that. There were places where it was fun to swim and those where it wasn't. Another bon mot that comes to my mind is that a new perspective on Poland spreads from the Vistula. That's true.

When did you first sail on the Vistula?

In 2008 with Jarek Kałuża. We sailed on one of these boats that are made in Ulanów. It is only 7m long and 2.7m wide. And there were 14 people on it with luggage. We called this Royal River Cruise right away. Jarek started sailing even earlier, in 2006, with National Geographc. Jarek Kałuża is the initiator of this movement. Definitely.

And on daily basis he works with old books....

He found a reprint of some book. Oh, yes, I remember now. It was Jakub Boyko's A River Cruise to the third king from the Partitions. At that time the Vistula was divided into three kingdoms and the tour was through all of them, to the third king, which was the Prussian partition. Jakub Bojko described a trip from the beginning of the century from Opatowiec to Toruń. He grew up in a poor village in Małopolska, later he was a member of the People's Party. Kałuża read that book and wanted to have similar adventures. Earlier, in 1996, a raft from Ulanów sailed the Vistula River. But the raftsman community was not connected with Cracow, the hometown of Kałuża.

Before was Gąsowski, who sailed from Cracow to Orleans in 1995.

Oh yes. It was the real beginning ... And in 2015, 20 years later, although it was not planned at all, we sailed from Poland to Orleans for the Loire Festival. I sailed for two and a half months. Others changed, but I finished like I started, on my boat. We knew that when we crossed the Oder and reached Berlin, we wouldn't be able to withdraw. We knew we would just have to go forward.

What is sailing like in Western Europe?

Sailing on canals is just boring. In short, the best sailing is in Poland. On a beautiful, free river, full relaxation. In western Europe there are canals all around. Larssen sheet piling on both sides, no animal crossings. I have seen many dead animals on shores... And 160 sluices. Canals are 150 years old, that's impressive. Everything is well-planned, very useful, but ugly and boring. In Poland, maybe not so useful, but beautiful. And with huge prospects. With some effort – deepening here, adjusting there, repairing, Poland can have a sailing trail for boats of medium displacement. It seems quite simple and cheap compared to what the Europeans have done with their rivers. The Vistula has not changed much since the days when it was used by large ships.

There is still a deep-rooted belief that the Vistula is dangerous and very dirty.

This is not true anymore. In 2008 and 2009 it turned out that the water purifies itself naturally. When there is no sewage from Przemsza, the biome is restored. And nature potential is just inexhaustible. It is so sad that when the Vistula has become popular again, they made some barriers, Look at Kozienice and Połaniec. The larssen threshold in Kozienice is dangerous to boats, and it's also very fragile, because floating ice can catch it and tow it. The only gateway is about 10 m wide. All boats go there. It's easy to imagine what can happen when you go through it at full engine power and make a mistake.

Because in these places the Vistula is not for sailing, but for cooling.

Because decision makers have never sailed with us. It is extremely important to invite as many people as possible to accompany us on our river tours. If authorities responsible for the Vistula agreed to accompany us on at least a three-day cruise, they would surely change their approach. They would look at the river in a different way.

When did you start this year's cruise?

We set off at the end of April, but we are moving slow. Gdańsk is our destination. We have to be there on 27 May for the 28th inauguration of Flow/Motława, that is, we start an open-air event sailing up the river with artists, well, mainly female artists, who will change on the way. They can get engaged in artistic work, they can do something, but they don't have to. They just have to feel the flow, feel the river. We're going to Sandomierz and back.

So, you are traveling across Poland looking for interesting events?

Or we organize them ourselves. In the near future we have Kupala Night in Warsaw. Then Sandomierz, then the Vistula Festival in Włocławek, Ciechocinek, Toruń.

Let's go back to sailing in Europe. Where, outside Poland, do rivers have beautiful banks, because canals are not everywhere, right?

Of course, but they are different, smooth, groomed. Like a French park, while we have something like an English park. Only the Loire is like the Vistula, or maybe like the San. The Loire is similar to the Vistula, only with a rocky bottom. The French admit that they took sand from the Loire, exploited the river. The bottom is rocky, and the rocks stick out. It's difficult to navigate. The Loire is regulated only towards the Atlantic. But a long section has never been regulated. And that's the part that leads to Orleans. This is the best part. There were also very beautiful stretches in the Ardennes. This Wallonia part is really beautiful. Instead of going north, towards Brussels and then to Paris by canals, we sailed south through Wallonia. Beautiful, green shores, like the Bieszczady, like gorges in the Bieszczady, but the river is wide. There are castles and charming towns along the way. And the trail of fortresses from the First World War, so it is also a historical trail. For several hundred kilometers the vibe and the views are wonderful. But the problem is with sluices. 160 sluices along the route, mainly in France.

Is it easy to operate them?

Yes, it is. You get a remote, you open the sluice yourself, everything is very simple, a blue rod, a red rod, the sluice is locked, the water flows, you go ahead. They care about every tree.

Because they have few trees.

That's right. Few trees, little sand in the river while we still have it all. That's why we shouldn't think that we are worse and we have to catch up with somebody. We have real wealth. The French were here, in Poland, and they liked it very much. They want to come here again and sooner or later they will. They feel the Vistula, they feel this river.

And what is this river?

It's the basis of our existence. You have to go into it gradually. Even if you do not feel it first, and then you cannot name it, you will eventually understand it. You can also start by sailing on a sailboat, you can start just by admiring the views. There are many ways to the river. You just need to open up. Then everything will go smoothly.

And what's so special about this boat?

It is wide and very safe. It's like a house, with a place for a kitchen, a bedroom, a living room, whatever you want. Surface area of more than 40 meters, so you can organize everything well and thanks to that you can let even very young kids in and you are not afraid that they will fall into water. Even when during the staging of the Battle of the Vistula in Toruń in October last year, we were hit by a petard and it made a hole in the bottom - nothing special happened. I said to Marcin, let's go to the shore. And he answered: no, why?! It has just begun! These were the first minutes of the battle. So Grzegorz Bigaj,a big guy, stuck a stump in that hole, sat down and tried to stop the water from getting inside with his weight. And we poured the water out. But even a scow full of water wouldn't sink. It is made of wood.

Would you like to see the Royal River Cruise consisting of, say, 40 boats?

I have mixed feelings. Tourism is cool, but mass tourism is not. On the other hand, there is nothing to worry about. Before I thought that people would come to places with birds and beavers and turn them into Zakopane. But luckily, sailing on the river is such a big challenge that you have to carefully prepare for that. And those who are not prepared, give up. Gradually people will learn, kids with their parents more about the river, and will start to sail. It's all a matter of manners. It is not a problem to take a shovel with you so that you won't leave ugly things behind.

What are your dreams connected with the Vistula?

I'd like to see an Indian sauna on an island. We did something like that before. I can imagine such natural baths. And well-managed latrines. If tourism on the Vistula is to increase, sanitary infrastructure is essential. The Vistula River is for those who are responsible, who treat it like a temple.

Where they should take off the shoes?

Yes, even that.