Friday 19th September 2008, Zinnowitz, Germany
Yes, despite its Polish sounding name we have now moved on into Germany, still generally following the contour of the Baltic coast.
It seems a world away since we were in Gdansk yet it is only two days. Two days of very tiring driving along roads which, while definitely an improvement on eastern Poland, still count as some of the roughest we have travelled in any country. Even the dirt roads of Guatemala were smoother and more comfortable than sections of the main routes across northern Poland.
There has been little of exceptional interest to report, just large swathes of countryside with a few sad and ugly towns along the way. As we said earlier, Poland was very seriously affected by World War II and the effects are still only too obvious sixty years on. While cities such as Warsaw and Gdansk have been to some extent reconstructed and returned to their former beauty, hundreds of little towns and lesser cities across Poland were also flattened and have not been restored. Instead the ground has been cleared. Usually the main church, old town hall and perhaps the city gates have been rebuilt as they were, but for the rest, the rubble has been razed and large blocks of characterless flats built to provide emergency housing for the homeless inhabitants. It is something of a shock to walk through a reconstructed mediaeval brick gateway only to come face to face with ugly, pre-cast concrete flats, a couple of rows of small individual shops, a few market stalls and a weed-strewn wasteland in the centre used as a car park. Eventually we ended up skirting around the towns as far as possible as they were so depressingly unattractive.
We were forced to the coast to find anywhere to camp last night. In Poland the season is over, the tourist resorts closed and deserted. The one site we found open however, was pleasantly situated at Niechorze near a lighthouse just a couple of hundred metres from the sandy beach. We were too tired to do more than take a quick stroll on the sand and return to the warmth of Modestine to watch a DVD about MI5 and the KGB, most of whose secret agents had names that sounded just as unpronounceable as the names of all the towns and villages here! (Ian's navigation instructions are along the lines of "follow the signs to Zwschtztych then take the left fork to Wzchitzkovkychi.")
This morning started fine and we decided it was so pleasant and peaceful along the coastal route we would miss out on the doubtful splendours of Szczecin and follow the empty coastal road round towards the German border. Unfortunately, in a moment of aberration Ian directed us onto a minor road where we immediately fell victim to potholes. Heated words were exchanged and Modestine refused to go any further, turning herself round and bumping her way back to the slightly better main coastal route.
At Kamien Pomorski we stopped to explore the town and the lagoon which separates it from the Baltic. The town still has its gates, town hall, lovely brick gothic cathedral and a baroque church. For Poland it is more attractive than many places but would not be worth a special trip to visit. The lagoon on the other hand is lovely, exuding an atmosphere of tranquillity. We arrived just as a regatta was about to start. School children from various EU countries were there to race their little sailing dinghies on the lagoon and we watched as they prepared to put to sea. In the town we found a little shop selling locally produced Polish folk pottery. It was both pretty and colourful. We have been travelling through Pomerania, the heartland of the Kashubian people, and are wondering whether it is perhaps their folk art.
Our map showed a ferry crossing a river estuary just inside the Polish border. The campsite assured us it would be running and we arrived just in time to drive straight on. Amazingly it was completely free! We drove off onto lumpy, bumpy cobbled roads a couple of kilometres from the border with Germany. Counting up our remaining zloty we stopped at a garage and treated Modestine to a few extra litres of diesel to use it up. On we bumped, tossing and pitching over the cobbles until quite suddenly everything went completely silent and smooth. We'd crossed into Germany!
From then on driving has been like waking from a horrid dream and realising everything is all right and it's over. There is far more traffic around but it behaves predictably and you can drive with the confidence that comes from knowing your axle is not about to snap, you wheels buckle or your tyres explode. Nor are you going to have to slam on your brakes because the Warsaw train is crossing the road just ahead of you and there are no warning lights or barriers.
We are finally back in the land of regular campsites all eager to welcome you with cut-price offers as the season is nearing its end. Along the German Baltic though, the holiday makers are still here. The Germans take everything, including having fun, very seriously and even this late in the season they are here in their droves, gathered in a seaside resort that is specially designed to give them exactly what they want. The contrast here with what we have seen over in Poland is very marked. In Zinnowitz there is an active nightlife along the seafront with brightly lit stalls selling souvenirs and knickknacks that actually look interesting and a free cabaret with pop singing, dancing and oompah music near the pier. This was really drawing in the crowds tonight. All the surrounding stalls were selling beer and mustard covered sausages in fresh, crusty German rolls. Yumm! We joined the Germans enjoying fresh bread for the first time since leaving England as we watched the cabaret. (There seems no "best before" policy when it comes to selling bread in the Baltics and Poland. Either that or they see us coming. We can buy fresh rolls for breakfast on the campsite so have cheerfully consigned our heavy yellow Polish bread to the rubbish bin, along with the Polish paté we bought – unless it was cat food, we couldn't understand the label and it tasted pretty foul!)
So there are definite compensations for being back in the west. We have obviously enjoyed our travels in Eastern Europe but there is a sense of relief to be safely back in a country where we can make ourselves understood and read the labels on things! It's also less frightening should we have any difficulties with Modestine, always one of our greatest anxieties.
Saturday 20th September 2008, Rügen, Germany
Rügen is an island, rather larger than the Isle of Wight, in the Baltic. During the days of restricted travel for residents of the GDR our friend Hubert used to take his annual holiday here and on the neighbouring tiny island of Hiddensee. Those two weeks were always very precious and looked forward to from one year to the next. He would frequently tell us in his postcards of the peace and tranquillity to be found here.
On an impulse over fresh breakfast rolls this morning we decided to leave the holiday makers of the brash resort of Zinnowitz to their Pflaumentorte, candyfloss, waffles, pickled herring rolls and smoked eels, and explore Hubert's much-loved hideaway for ourselves. After all, the weather has turned so much warmer we are back to tee-shirts and the sun has been smiling all day.
First though, we stopped at the university and Hansa town of Greifswald – no, we'd never even heard of the town before either. It turned out to be an extremely enjoyable experience and it was only the relentless ticking of the parking meter down beside the harbour that finally dragged us away. The centrepiece of the town is a huge and very beautiful square surrounded by majestic gothic, renaissance and baroque secular buildings. At street level there are the usual relaxed cafes and restaurants with their colourful sunshades.
Near the brick-built gothic cathedral stands the impressive façade of the university, founded in 1456. We noticed the Swedish royal arms on the monument commemorating the foundation of the university and later discovered that Greifswald was ceded to Sweden under the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. It remained under Swedish control until 1815. Our travels have made us aware of what a political kaleidoscope Europe is. Yesterday we were in a part of Poland that used to be German and today we are in a part of Germany that used to be Swedish.
In a nearby street we discovered an informal flea-market. Local residents had lined the pavements with tables and piled them high with Barbie-dolls, old CDs, coffee machines with bits missing, a battered pressure cooker, saucepans without lids and bargain boxes of books. Ian pleaded with me in vain to be allowed to buy a book about German naval hatbands between 1890 and 1921! On the other hand, I was delighted to find a Polish folk-art pot similar to those we'd seen yesterday in Kamien Pomorski being sold for one euro!
A young man wearing dangling ear-rings and a very pleasant smile waved a thermos in our direction and invited us to his street stall to join him and the local postman for coffee and cakes. He refused to take any money for them explaining he was doing it in support of the other stall holders to add to the atmosphere and that he worked for the local Baptist church. We asked if we could make a donation to his church funds but that too was refused. The cakes were delicious and the coffee excellent. Into the bargain we had a friendly chat with the young man who seemed curious to learn of our travels around the Baltic. He sent us off with suggestions of what we should see before we left the town.
Modestine is becoming something of a ferry addict. She cannot get enough of them. It was less than 24 hours since she'd been on the Polish ferry and here she was crossing the Baltic to Rügen.
It only took fifteen minutes and soon we were driving through the island's peaceful countryside. It is large enough for it not to be obviously an island but there are frequent vistas of the sea across the flat, ploughed brown landscape where the harvest has been gathered in. There are little villages of thatched cottages and timber-framed brick houses. Cattle and horses are in the fields on the edges of the villages and geese and hens wander across the little byways that lead down to the sandy beaches. In village centres on the less frequented roads we have encountered cobbles, reminiscent of Poland, but invariably the main routes are Teflon smooth. In general everywhere is bright and well maintained but just occasionally we catch a glimpse of the region's GDR past. In the main cobbled street of Bergen auf Rügen the fronts of many of the erstwhile attractive buildings have not yet been restored. They present a colourless, neglected, grey facade to the street reminiscent of our visits to Weimar and Thuringia back in the 1980s.
The island is completely flat and offers the perfect opportunity for cycling. There are cycle tracks throughout the island and bikes are available for hire. If the weather stays as good tomorrow we may just manage to persuade Hinge and Bracket out of their cosy bags. Their main fear is of being mocked for being so small. The heavyweight German bikes they have here are giants by comparison, cruising past us on their huge silent tyres while both the rattling wheels and peddles of Hinge and Bracket are no more than a blur!
Towards evening we pulled in to a campsite up near the northernmost tip of the island where we are sheltered beneath pine trees, tucked in behind the dunes, the waves of the Baltic breaking gently on the beach just a minute's walk through the trees.
Sunday 21st September 2008, Rügen, Germany
Thank you Hubert! Rügen is just as peaceful and pretty as you always said it was. This morning we woke to bright sunshine and a sea breeze. It looked set to stay fine and the bikes were showing real enthusiasm for once as we turned out of the campsite and set off along the sea shore on a flat, comfortable cycle track that followed the coast through fields and villages right up to the very tip of Rügen at Kap Arkona. We were in no hurry, stopping frequently to look out across the wide expanse of blue-green sea with its coastal fringe of low-level tree-topped cliffs. We passed a raised mound with several erratic granite boulders; a Neolithic burial mound dating from around 3,000BC. A few kilometres beyond we found ourselves down at the beach in the tiny thatched fishing village of Vitt where nets were spread out on the grass to dry.
We'd made picnic rolls for our bike ride. We should have realised they were unnecessary in Germany where almost nowhere is beyond easy reach of a Konditorei, bakery or coffee shop. In the village of Vitt cyclists were spoilt for choice with several seaside kiosks offering herring rolls, smoked fish salads or Bratwurst as well as coffee and Pflaumentorte. We found a sheltered corner for a coffee where we sat watching the waves breaking over the jetty and the gulls basking in the sunshine. Nearby was the village fish house where herrings and eels are hung up and smoked. The ovens were glistening with accumulated fish grease and we watched as it was peeled away in thick oozing ribbons of oily black fat with an electric scraper.
Returning to Hinge and Bracket we found them deep in conversation with a couple of new friends who were explaining the relevance of German philosophy and the power of pessimism as expressed by Arthur Schopenhauer. They now understood why they had been cowering for weeks inside their black bags, afraid of the mockery of those highly sprung Teutonic bikes! With understanding came confidence. Never again would they feel inferior. They too were capable of reaching the lighthouse!
The rest of the day they never once grumbled. They positively surged along leaving a scattering of pedestrians in their wake. Once at Kap Arkona we left them chained together while we explored the area. This tip of the island is famed for its natural autumn harvest of the bright orange berries of Sanddorn, or as we know it, sea buckthorn. It is used in every possible way from mustard to soap, from jam to vodka. We gathered a few berries but they tasted very sour. More to our liking were the many blackberries and juicy elderberries. Autumn is a very colourful time to be in northern Europe where the trees and bushes are festooned with ripening fruits and berries. When, as here, it is set against the backdrop of grey green sea and a sky of magnificent towering clouds, it is something that no amount of Mediterranean sunshine and blue skies can rival.
There are two lighthouses on the cliff top, the older one defunct but happily reincarnated as a registry office, licensed for weddings! Around the base each newlywed couple has placed a flagstone inscribed with their names and wedding date. It seemed a good idea until we noticed a few missing paving slabs. We conclude that those marriages did not survive.
Also at Kap Arkona we found a very pretty development of new cottages with thatched roofs. Most seemed available as holiday lets. Several were painted in very unlikely colours such as lime green walls and purple shutters. Somehow it seemed to work well here. The setting was idyllic.
Out to sea the clouds were gathering and turning black. The wind had risen and we were a long way from home. We decided not to continue inland to return by a round route with the possibility of getting lost on the way. Instead we pedalled back along the cliff top, turning into the campsite just as the rain began to fall. Hinge and Bracket were soon tucked up in their bags on the front seats of Modestine while we wrote postcards and drank mugs of tea in the back as the rain splattered on the roof.