Saturday, 3 July 2010

And suddenly

Written 28th June

And suddenly a week has gone by and we are in another country.  How did that happen??

We landed back in Poland in a bit of a daze with no other plan than heading east as sadly we will now have to leave Gdansk and the polish coast for another time.  A text to Rafi and Meli elicited the response that Lodz was nice but Torun was great, so that became the plan - afterall, who wants to go somewhere that's only nice?? - and after 48 hours of early start/lack-of-sleep induced jetlagged tiredness in leafy laybys - we realised afterwards that we managed to sleep through half of the longest day of the year, but I suppose at least that meant there was more day left by the time we woke up... :) - we woke up bright and early in a truck stop on the outskirts of  Torun and headed on in.

And it was great!

Torun is a redbrick gothic city - the best preserved in Poland apparently - with a walled old town settled by the side of the river.

For 150-odd years it was an outpost of the Teutonic Knights - the same set of invaders who were successfully fought off by the united Poles and Lithuanians at Grunwald, a bit further north and east in 1400-something - until a peace treaty between the two was signed in Torun in 1466 which returned all the land between Torun and Gdansk to Poland.

It is also famous for gingerbread and as the birthplace of Nicholas Copernicus - he of 'the earth travels round the sun, no really, it does' fame - although it would be entirely possible for you to come here and not realise that... Oh, hang on, no it wouldn't :)

By the time you have walked through the main square and past the Kopernika statue in front of the Town Hall,

and then down Kopernika street in which is a house once owned by his family where he may or may not have been born and which is now the Kopernika museum

and bought a gingerbread Copernicus from the World of Gingerbread Museum...

[nb actual picture shows gingerbread tower - cheaper than a gingerbread copernicus :) ] you might just get an inkling there was some connection here... :) 

the statue of the Violin Player and the Frogs (we gather it is a Pied Piper of Hamlin like tale but with a fiddle and frogs in place of a recorder and rats),

The baroque facade of the House Under the Star (house, star, name, done.)

St Mary's church

The Dovecote tower

The Bridge gate

The ruins of the Teutonic Castle

And even Torun's very own Leaning Tower

and some proper polish street food for lunch

All in all, a jolly pleasant couple of hours.

And so onwards and eastwards through a green and pleasant landscape with storks perched in nests on every suitable (ie suitably modified for the purpose) chimney and telegraph pole, where there had obviously been some kind of special religious day recently as all the  crosses and shrines in villages and by the sides of roads were decorated with flowers and festooned with ribbons - sorry, no pics, never actually stopped near one.

First stop, Swieta Lipka, where the LP promised a superb 17th century church: 'one of the purest examples of late baroque architecture in Poland.  Its lavishly decorated organ features angels adorning 5000 pipes, and they dance to the organ's music'

5000 dancing angels?  This we have to see.

Turns out, there may be 5000 pipes but there aren't so many angels.  But they do dance - after a fashion...

The trumpeters swivel, the little ones ring bells, and the big one top left nods along in time with music.  But my particular favourites were the mandolin strumming on in the centre and the big one top right which I think was playing air guitar.

Totally brilliant and totally the cheesiest thing ever!

see if the video works (and gives you any idea at all what it was like...)

And then on to the opposite end of the Nazi chain of command from Auschwitz:  Hitler's secret bunker, the so-called Wolf's Lair.

We actually went first to Mamerki, the seat of the High Commander of the Land Forces. 

Unlike the bunkers at Wolf's Lair, these were not destroyed by the departing armies so you can take (or hire) a torch and go poking round inside the massive monoliths, past the spyholes,

through the gloomy corridors and even, down 30m of underground tunnel which connects two communication buildings... Spooky.

(although not as exciting as the Bulgarian Communist Headquarters or the Guns of Navarone at Cartagena - somewhat lacking in illicit thrill...) 

The bunkers are single storey with immensely thick concrete slab roofs - at least another storey of solid concrete -

all covered in some kind of spray on straw-and-mud effect covering which softens the outlines and encourages the moss to grow. 

Even on a bright sunny day, hidden as they were in the dappled sunlight amongst the trees, they were hard to spot and suddenly loomed up at you. 

Even the roofs were covered with trees - we ended up on a roof and apart from the edge which showed you were , you couldn't tell the roof from the forest floor.

There is even one with a reconstructed watch tower on top that you can climb (although sadly not the original stair rungs)

and from there, looking down and surveying the forest below, you would have no idea that 30 bunkers were hidden round abouts. 


So, on to the big one then.

Built between 1940-42, the bunkers were built as Hitler's headquarters for his invasion of the Soviet Union and his main residence from 1941-44. As a proper concrete resort town, they had all manner of creature comforts even a cinema and sauna, in this now dank and grim looking place. 

It was also the site of the famous exploding-briefcase-assassination plot of 1944 which destroyed the situation room, failed to do more than injure Hitler (someone moved the briefcase) and led to the execution of 5000 people alleged to have been involved.

Exciting stuff.  

Pretty early on, you come to the exhibition with the scale model and various information panels. 

I always thought it was crazy that Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union, with whom he had signed a non-aggression pact only two years previously - the same pact which effectively split Poland in two.  He had an unfinished war on the western front, so why go and start another one?  Apparently at the time though, many people, including some British and American generals, thought it was the sensible thing.  He'd got France in hand and wasn't sufficiently interested in the few resources that little old Britain had, to make it immediately worth trying to cross the sea, against the might of the British navy.  Apparently he also figured that if it was difficult making further headway now, in a couple of years, Britain and America would have gotton their acts together sufficiently to be really tricky, so he might as well polish off the russians quickly first, whilst they weren't expecting it, and then turn his full attention back West.  Obviously it didn't work out like that, the Russians fought back harder and longer than he expected and although he nearly made it to Moscow, the tide turned and he did end up over stretched and  fighting hard on both fronts.

I also hadn't realised until going to Auschwitz that it wasn't just the Jews he was after, although they are the single group of people most affected and most commonly now associated with the death camps.  He was also planning on wiping out the Roma, and the Slavs - by using them as slaves and sterilising them all so they couldn't reproduce and would therefore die out as a race after a couple of generations (fundemental flaw: who do you use for slaves if they don't produce you more slaves??) and also the russians.  Just because.  Big aspirations.

The information display at Wolf's Lair also explained the SS's last ditch plan, the Alpine Reduit, a fallback to an area in the Alps stretching east from Lake Constance through bits of Austria and as far south as the Italian Dolomites.  And their bargaining chip of last resort, various important or influential people they held in 'kinship custody' aka hostages, whom they were hoping to use in trade for money and concessions from the allies.  By 1945 they were already transporting them to the reduit via various concentration camps when the SS finally surrendered them to the German Military and thence to Allied forces in Niederdorf.  Something else I just didn't know.

Wolf's Lair was largely destroyed by the departing Germans - mainly by lots of blowing up - so there's not really anything to go in, but the cracked and toppled walls show the enormity of the structures and the sheer volume of concrete which wasn't immediately apparent from the undamaged bunkers.

Just immense.

All in all, a very pleasant and surprisingly informative walk in the forest.  but there are only so many empty or destroyed concrete bunkers you need in one day,  so onwards again through the lovely Great Masurian Lakes (aka Thousand Lakes, and area of ) area

with a late lake lunch stop in pleasant Gizycko, before our rendezvous with Meli, Rafi and Bussli in a cheap lakeside campsite for a bbq.

Polish beer, portuguese wine (don't think poland does wine, we have given up looking), steak, chicken, sausages, grilled chese, even salad! (provided by Meli of course, you don't catch me making salad!)

finished off with polish vodka with grass in it and bbq'd coffee as the sun went down.

This is the life!

They are very well and have had a great few days in Gdansk and on the coast - definitely somewhere to come back to! - and have acquired a new van-dweller - 9kg gas bottle called Bobotte - as they ran out of gas and nowhere could fill theirs :(  still, hopefully this should last them through the baltics and scandinavia - they too may be on a quest for Nordkapp now, depending if we say it is worth it :) - and safely into france where they can refill theirs again.  Hurrah for lpg and the right adaptors I say... ;)

It was so lovely to see them again although sadly this will definitely be the last time - for this trip at least - as they are heading for three days kayacking in the lakes then a slow meander to meet parents in Riga, by which time we should be at the north pole!

So a fond farewell to them and on to Augustow, the home town of Will's ecu-providing polish ex-colleague and the major town on the Augustow Canal, at 102 kms apparently the longest in europe, which stretches from Belarus and into Poland.

On Adam's recommendations we headed to the wild and beautiful Sajno Lake for a walk then back into town for dinner. 

Where we completely underestimated the scale of the appetizers - I thought they were supposed to be small things! - and ended up with huge kiszka ziemniaczana (delicious potato sausage which was both exactly like it sounds and completely not what we expected) and Zurek na zakwasie (Polish fermented rye soup),

followed by Placek po zbojnicku z sosem gulaszowym (potato pancakes with meat) and fresh lake fish.  All scrummy although we did have to admit defeat before the end :)

More of Adam's suggestions today.  First up, a drive along the canal to Paniewo double lock; a nice drive through forested lanes and little villages to one of the old locks

and a bit of lake walk,

and then north to Wigry National Park, another lake area with a 17th century monastery on a peninsula.

PJP2 visited here.  You can, if you wish, go on the boat cruise he went on (we didn't), stay in the monastery appartment he stayed in (again didn't) and even cycle (as we did) down his cycle track - well, it was labelled JP2, what else do we conclude from that!  13-odd years ago I'm sure he had a pope-o-cycle or something... ;)  - eitherway, he certainly has better cycle tracks than those in southern poland, that's for sure!

All jolly lovely.

And so, we have come to the end of Poland, in this little tiny corner surrounded by Russia (Kalingrad), Lithuania and Belarus.

A final petrol stop - it is cheaper in Poland than Lithuania apparently - a final supermarket stop to spend our last few coins - only a small one so not much choice, I foresee a lot of cheap tuna and sweetcorn pasta (a recent addition to the van dwellers' cook-book, ingredients as listed) in our future for which I am sure we will be very grateful by the time we reach expensive Finland, and we're still only a thurd the way through the first of our catering size jars of bulgarian pesto and sun dried tomatoes too, we'll not need to shop in finland!... - and over the border.  

Poland: done.

We didn't get everywhere we wanted, especially the north coast,  but then we never will on this trip: so much world, so little time.  

And poland has been great if, as I have said before, unexpectedly familiar in someways.  It is a big country and it has something for everyone; mountains, a fabulous relaxing lakes district - a camping/hiking/cycling/water sports holiday here would be just about perfect - beautiful cities, and (apparently) gorgeous coastline.  There is a lot of history here too, a once strong kingdom constantly invaded, occupied, fought over, divided,wiped from the map and reborn again.

So, a lovely place with great food and really friendly people and properly friendly to small freeloading camper vans with wide off road laybys and TIR truck parking in virtually every petrol station.   What's not to like?

So, on to Lithuania then.

We have no language - the lp Eastern Europe Phrasebook inexplicably doesn't include the Baltics - except 'Hello!', 'Labas!', 'Good bye!', 'Viso gero!', 'yes', 'taip',  'no', 'ne', 'thank you', 'aciu' and 'water', 'vanduo', which Meli kindly copied out of their Baltics book and the AA Driving Europe Book cheerfully warns that: "Lithuania has almost no signposting.".

All good fun!  

I am sure it will all be fine... It most often is :)


  1. I am glad you liked food in Augustow. Please give me a shout when you will be back in UK. I can show you Polish restaurant in Cambridge, where you can get this kind of food.


  2. yes please! we didn't find your favourite thing you suggested but the potato sausage was yummy