Sunday 14th September 2008, Sopot, Near Gdansk, Poland
Well as you can see, we have now left the last of the Baltic States behind and are well inside Poland. We have been here for a couple of days but as we warned in our last blog, travelling across rural Poland on minor roads in an overweight, for engine size, camping car is a form of extreme masochism. At night it left us utterly exhausted, unable to do more than open a tin for supper and crawl exhausted into bed to sleep the clock round. (Actually it wasn't quite round as, without realising, we have moved back into a different time zone. We are now on standard European time again but until this morning, as in the Baltic States, we were still running two hours ahead of the UK. At least it gets us moving of a morning.)
We left Lithuania on Friday, passing through the delightfully named town of Marijampole. There are only two possible crossing points between Lithuania and Poland. They are both squashed between the borders of Belarus and the Russian region of Kaliningrad; an area with a complex and chequered history that once formed part of German-speaking Prussia, when it was known as Königsberg. Ian has the manhole cover to prove it.
The most direct route for us, following the rim of the Baltic, took us across near Kalvarija where we stopped to spend the last of our Litu on fuel for Modestine and sandwiches for us. It was a wise move as diesel in Poland, while still cheaper than further west, is more expensive than in Lithuania. The rest of the day we followed along so close to the border with Kaliningrad that sometimes it was just a field away. This border stretches, die-straight, for over 160 kilometres, from Lithuania to the sea. There are roads crossing the border but most are closed, while those that are open require special permits, visas, insurance and payments in order to cross.
We stopped in Goldap to obtain Polish zloty from a cash machine. It seemed a pleasant little town but we needed to press on. Later during the afternoon, against all the odds, at the town of Wegorzewo, we found a campsite open and decided to stop. We were both exhausted, it was icy cold and we had a bucket load of wet washing. The thought of sleeping by the roadside if we continued did not appeal when here we would have hot water and electricity. So we settled ourselves down beside one of Poland's most beautiful lakes, Jez Mamty, spread our washing to dry on some bushes, warmed up with hot tea and immediately fell asleep. We were exhausted!
We later discovered we are in the very heart of Poland's summer holiday area with many beautiful lakes which was why we'd stumbled on an open campsite. The few other campers however were Germans, making their way home from Vilnius. The restaurant, shop and recreational facilities were all closed and the sanitary facilities were cold, full of beetles and spiders and very antiquated. They were hidden deep in the woods along a dark uneven path knotted with tree roots, far from where we were camped. But it was better than nothing; the sunset over the lake was magnificent and later, the full moon reflecting in the water, sending a shimmering silver path of light right across the surface, more than compensated for the cold and basic campsite.
When we left next morning the staff, who only spoke Polish but were charming and very friendly, gave us some mushrooms they had just collected in the woods. So we left refreshed and with happy memories of our first night in Poland.
Yesterday the roads deteriorated rapidly. Our guidebook waxes lyrical about driving the rural backroads of Poland rather than the major routes which it claims are broken up by heavy lorries. It does not mention quite how bad rural roads can be. It is true though that we passed through some very pretty villages with their decorated shrines, brick churches and bucolic old baroque cottages surrounded by gardens of marigolds, dahlias and rambling orange pumpkins. On the edge of such places we invariably found villagers out with a horse and cart or antiquated tractor, manually digging up their potato harvest and loading it into sacks. The ladies all wore headscarves presenting a very picturesque scene.
The roads though can be beyond belief. We have avoided anything but those marked on our Michelin map as surfaced and were following the only route possible across northern Poland. The alternative runs far to the south towards Warsaw. The roads had once been cobbled, later covered in a coating of bitumen. Over time this has deteriorated, heavy farm vehicles have loosened the cobbles which have been thrown out leaving deep craters several inches deep scattered randomly across the road surface. The rains and snows of icy winters have added to the destruction. So, remember the worse conditioned roads you have driven along in England and double or even treble it! That is what we have coped with for much of yesterday. With no alternative we had no option but to continue, weaving our way slowly round as many troughs as possible, shuddering as one or other of Modestine's wheels inevitably dropped deep into a pothole, only to be pulled out in time for the next one. As the navigator poor Ian got blamed for ending us up in such a mess while I cried with frustration at the realisation of how far we still needed to drive to reach better roads. As for Modestine, she patiently struggled on, dragging us onto better surfaces from time to time, only to find the road breaking up again after a few kilometres.
When eventually we did reach more major roads it was to find they are all being dug up and rebuilt to better standards. Where this has been done they are superb but where they are in progress there are long traffic delays and we run the gauntlet of scrobbling diggers and dumper trucks. At one point a diversion took us up and over a central reservation, kerbs and all! Poor Modestine!
Eventually we reached the sea and the end of the demarcation line of Kaliningrad. Here we paused to visit the small town of Frombork with its magnificent brick cathedral just above the tiny port area. It was here that the astronomer Nicholas Copernicus carried out his observations and proved, to the consternation of the clergy and 16th century popular thinking, that the Sun, rather than the Earth, was the centre of our solar system. He is buried inside the cathedral while to one side there is a brick tower and observatory named after him. Considering the furore raised by the publication of his work, why the Church permitted either his research or burial on their property is something of a mystery for us.
From our description of Polish roads you could be forgiven for thinking there is almost no traffic in Poland. We found even the few excellent new roads were almost deserted and coping with the traffic has been so much easier than we expected. So far drivers have been courteous and once we were on the ring-road around Gdansk we had no difficulty making our way to this chic Baltic seaside resort of Sopot. It lies between the twin towns of Gdansk and Gdynia. All together they form an urban conurbation of some 700,000 inhabitants.
Of the two campsites listed as open, the first was closed for the season. Fortunately this one is open until the end of the month. It seems clean and is convenient located for trains to Gdansk and Gdynia. We are just a short bike ride from the centre of Sopot which boasts the longest pier and the liveliest nightlife on the Baltic. Last night though we were too weary to do more than eat a quick, cold supper and get to bed. Today we feel refreshed and ready to face the world again.
Of all the suffering of all the people of all the countries of Eastern Europe, Poland has perhaps suffered the most. So much indeed that several times in its history, Poland has ceased to exist and completely disappeared from the map of Europe. It once had a large, thriving and vibrant Jewish population which was systematically annihilated by the Nazis before 1945. Carved up and divided after the Second World War it found its boundaries changed, losing great swathes of its eastern and northern borders to Russia and regaining land from Germany, thus being physically moved westwards. Today it is a passionately Catholic country, so proud of its very own Pope John Paul II, whose portrait is seen in every church we have visited, that it's easy to forget that he had died and the present pope is German.
During the years of Nazi oppression and the time when Poland formed part of the battleground between Germany and Soviet Russia, the country was decimated. Its capital Warsaw was reduced by Hitler to nothing more than a pile of smouldering rubble. He proudly and accurately claimed he has wiped its very existence from the face of Europe. Over 800,000 people lost their lives there – that's 100,000 more than the present huge combined conurbations of Gdansk, Gdinia and Sopot here! Since the war, Warsaw has re-emerged, much as it once was, painstakingly rebuilt to its original design. (Interestingly, the paintings of Canaletto were used to help in the accurate reconstruction.)
We have so much yet to learn about our present host country but already it is somewhere I feel more understanding towards than has been possible in the three Baltic countries we have visited. Poland has long been the link between the two halves of Europe and the furnace for the changes that led to the moderation and ultimate collapse of Soviet power.
We do not have the time left now to travel south to see either Warsaw or Krakow. Instead we intend to explore the old Prussian town of Danzig, as it was originally known when it was one of the mediaeval, German-speaking Hanseatic towns. Now it is part of Poland and called Gdansk. It is probably just as familiar a Polish place-name as either Warsaw or Krakow. Back in the 1980s it was mentioned almost nightly on the BBC News. Here workers at the famed but grim Lenin shipyards, angered by the sudden rise in food prices resulting from Soviet mismanagement, formed themselves into a union, known as Solidarity, led by the charismatic Lech Walesa, that dared to challenge the might of Moscow. They went on strike, formed pickets and militant units, and made demands to the government for representation in the decision-making process. They were the first of the satellite states to successfully stand up to their Soviet overlord at a time when a chink was forming in its armour and it could no longer conceal its state of economic bankruptcy. The shipyard workers squeezed open the door, forcing the Soviets to share responsibility and be more accountable. Eventually Poland gained a free-market economy and a truly democratic government with Lech Walesa as its president.
Until we reached Poland we have seen very little evidence of major western companies making inroads into the new countries of the EU. True that in Vilnius we discovered a Marks and Spencer, but otherwise it is only here near Gdansk that we have seen our first Lidl, Intermarché and Tesco supermarkets. Other international names are appearing too; Shell, Renault and Citroen, Coca-Cola, Heineken, ...
This afternoon we made our way down to the centre of Sopot and the sea front. It really is a very agreeable holiday town and being a pleasant Sunday the main street leading down to the pier was crowded with families. The atmosphere was relaxed and happy; the street cafés crowded with people enjoying coffees and ice creams; while near the pier there was a free concert that continued all afternoon. When we arrived there was a show of Irish tap dancing which was brilliant. This was followed by a band playing regimental marches and as we passed by again later, a group of hunting horn players. Many people had set up little stalls and were selling mushrooms, home made cakes, fruit wines and flavoured vodka. Polish vodka is apparently something quite special but would be wasted on us. There was also a display of Polish wildlife, greatly enjoyed by the children, and the whole event seemed to highlight forestry and conservation.
There are several very smart hotels fronting onto the sea including the splendour of the Grand Hotel, which exudes an atmosphere of inter-war gentility. It is also where Hitler stayed in 1939 while his forces were advancing across Poland, safely ahead of him. We decided it was time for a little luxury and spent a very pleasant hour in the comfortable lounge armchairs served with coffee and tiny cream meringues by a uniformed waiter while we browsed the Sunday Times and caught up with British politics, the American election campaign and the unlikely scenario of a coalition government in Zimbabwe; all things that have rather passed us by over the last month or two. Eastern Europe is an excellent place for luxury that we would not afford back home, and nobody has yet thrown us out for looking as if our clothes have recently been carried several hundred miles in a bucket and dried off on a bush. The luxurious toilets alone were worth the price of the coffee with real fluffy white hand towels, perfumed soap and hot water!
Back at the sea front we found the Polish Sunday treat is a huge waffle loaded with whipped cream and various fruits. We purchased one laden with cherries to share; delicious and very filling after our meringues.
After a stroll along the sandy, windy beach near the pier, with views along the coast to the Gdansk shipyards, we returned to Modestine along pleasant, tree-lined streets of belle époque houses in various stages of decay or restoration, some with attractive enclosed wooden balconies.