From Iceland — Four days in Northern Poland

Four days in Northern Poland

Published June 15, 2007

Day 1 – The very long drive from Berlin
After several wrong turns, we find what we think is the correct route. An hour or so later we collectively and ingeniously decide that we thought wrong and now it’s time to get out the map.
When that doesn’t seem to help we stop to ask the way. The look of utter shock on the poor German’s face is universally understood in our car – we are lost, very lost. I am thrilled to find out that the likely reason for this is that my travel companions, largely responsible for the navigation side of things, are using a late 19th century map. A 19th century map?! That’s more than a hundred years old! Sure it looks pretty but… I should have known not to trust my friends – both graphic designers trained in the arts of typography, visual aesthetics and page layout – when it came to choosing the appropriate map. (In all fairness, the lack of road signs isn’t helping matters much either.)
One of the reasons for our trip to Poland is to visit the town of Giz˙ ycko where my friend Micha’s grandmother was born. But that was a while back, when parts of Poland and Germany existed as Prussia – surely the map has changed since then. And Bismarck no longer sits in the Reichstag. As if we needed any confirmation that we are lost, my other friend Ngaire exclaims: “We’ve been driving for four hours and we’re only one hour from Berlin!” At least someone is airing their frustration.
After our unplanned tour of northern Germany, passing windmills, country houses and old Soviet style factories, we finally arrive at the border with Poland. Our Australian passports cause some visible excitement among the border officials, but contrary to expectation the process is quick and we are left to go on our way. My travel companions’ last experience crossing borders in this part of the world left them with a few stories to tell.
Across the Border
Once across the border, the surrounding area is crowded by roadside stalls selling furniture and food at a cheaper price than on the German side of the border. These stalls, and the many pharmacies that we pass, are apparently aimed exclusively at the many Germans who cross into Poland to take advantage of the reduced prices. A personal favourite was a stall selling a wide range of rifles and army paraphernalia, situated near the shopping mall ATM, where we withdraw some Zloty.
Having just come from Iceland, the abundance of leafy green trees that line the Polish streets is a welcome change from Reykjavík, devoid of such greenery most of the year round. The construction work that seems to cover every inch of available space is apparently in preparation for the 2012 UEFA Cup finals, which Poland will co-host with Ukraine. Poland’s accession to the European Union on May 1, 2004 also gave it access to EU structural funds designed to help less developed members, such as Poland itself, achieve economic cohesion in the EU.
After more than twelve hours of driving we finally arrive in the Baltic seaport town of Gdan´ sk. We are greeted by a furious hotel manager who, we understand, is yelling Polish profanities at us. We can only assume it is for not having parked in the appropriate place while trying to gather our luggage from our car.
The cracked glass door of the hostel shows signs of several large objects having been aimed at the building. This, combined with the extensive warnings entitled “How to protect yourself – a few hints on the local tourism website, is unsettling. Obviously, Gdan´ sk’s tourism board has a slightly different approach to good marketing: give potential visitors as many reasons as possible to avoid the place – either that or we really have arrived in the crime-ridden and dangerous town that is described.
The twenty or so reasons used to discourage sensible-minded tourists include:
– “Do not make acquaintance with incidentally met people.
– Leaving your car remember to activate your alarm; apply other anti-theft devices you have.
– In case of burglary report it at the nearest police station or to the first police officer you meet immediately. [details of how to go about this are also listed] – Try not to doze off while travelling on public transport.
– Never accept an offer of a snack or drink from strangers – they might add a pinch of sleep-inducing drug.
– Keep a particularly keen eye on your luggage and check your pockets when getting off and on the public transport.
– Make sure you keep an eye on your bags and eye-catching jewellery.”
Day 2 – Gdan´ sk
Over breakfast an Australian couple tells us about their spoilt plan to visit the nearby town of Kaliningrad just over the Russian border. Apparently, the current political tensions between Poland and Russia over US President George Bush’s plans to have a missile defence shield built in Poland have caused the tour company to give their trips a second thought.
Gdan´ sk, or Danzig as it is known in German, lies in northern Poland on the Baltic Sea. With a population of 500,000, it is Poland’s sixth-largest city, premier seaport and centre of the sea trade. Gdan´ sk has a long bloody history of occupation. In modern times, during the 1930s, the town saw a mounting wave of Nazism. On September 1, 1939 Germany attacked Poland with military assaults on Danzig, marking the outbreak of World War II. Gdan´ sk was also the scene of a mass Soviet offensive which began in January 1945. Many who had been trying to flee the advancing Red Army were killed when the ships they were travelling on were sunk by the Soviets. After enduring several months of heavy bombardment by both the Allied Forces and the Soviets, the city was eventually captured by the Soviets and left in ruins. The last five decades have been devoted to the rebuilding effort.
With no eye-catching jewellery in possession, a full stomach and a safe place to leave the car, we head off along the banks of the Motlawa River to explore the old town of Gdan´ sk. We have arrived pre-tourist season, and the area near the early 15th century-built Crane harbour gate used for putting up ships masts and raising heavy cargo, seems overrun by Polish school children on an excursion.
The colourful houses on Mariacka Street are typical of Gdan´ sk. Their narrow facades topped with intricately designed gables or parapets are worthy of close inspection. The nearby indoor food markets sell local delicacies including a range of cheese, pickles and various meats. But it’s the outdoor food market that is the real treasure. Stall after stall of fresh produce selling everything from the brightest red radishes to plump aromatic strawberries.
Towards Giz˙ycko
We leave Gdan´ sk and make our way towards the eastern border with Belarus.
The winding country road passes farmhouses, endless fields of yellow rapeseed (canola) flowers and children riding home from school. A group of old men enjoying a cigar stand huddled together by the roadside. A tractor moves along slowly in front of us, blocking the road.
A nearby field of yellow flowers amongst an area of farmhouses makes for an idyllic spot to enjoy the relaxed pace of country life. We sit down to a picnic of Russian chocolate cake, bread with Polish cheese spread, and pickles.
Back on the road we continue our journey. We pass through the beautiful lake side town of Ostroda. A roadside stall selling locally produced honey proves tempting. Flat yellow fields are replaced with rolling green hills and tree lined lakes as we enter the picturesque Masurian Lakes district. Our destination for the night is the small town of Giz˙ ycko close to Poland’s north-eastern border with Belarus.
We enjoy a dinner of Pierogi (the Polish version of an Eastern European style ravioli dish), fish soup and a tomato-cucumber salad along the scenic waterfront which attracts thousands of visitors during the summer months, earning Giz˙ ycko the title of “summer capital of Poland.” Meanwhile, fishermen stand patiently on Lake Niegocen’s edge waiting for the sun to set.
Day 3 – Giz˙ycko to Torun´
The morning’s itinerary involves visiting the local graveyard in search of Micha’s grandmother’s grave. But we soon learn that the graves of all Germans who died in Giz˙ ycko have been moved elsewhere.
During 1945 Giz˙ ycko was occupied by the Soviet Union’s Red Army. When the town was placed under Polish administration after the war ended, the Germanspeaking populace who had not already evacuated were expelled westward.
We drive to Hitler’s bunker city in nearby Gierloz. The complex, dubbed Wolfsshanze (Wolf’s Lair), served as Hitler’s military headquarters for the Eastern Front during the years 1941–1944. It was also the site of the Von Stauffenberg’s 1944 failed bomb plot. Stauffenberg’s unsuccessful plot to kill the leader of the German Nazi Party led to the arrest of 5,000 people, the execution of about 200 people and the destruction of the resistance movement.
Hitler’s Ghost
We walk through the forest to the remains of the hidden bunker city which, in its time, included a sauna, barber and casino rooms. Some of the bunkers and fortified buildings bear significant damage with pieces of them lying 20 or so metres away. The majority of Hitler’s personal bunker remains intact, but an adjoining wall is fully destroyed. The Nazi’s attempted to demolish the complex in the fear of it being used by the retreating Soviets. More than sixty years since the end of World War II, the site exists as an open air museum and also houses a hotel, today guested by a busload of Russian tourists.
Despite a sign reading “Dangerous area – sightseeing only along marked routes,” all of the remains of explosives were reportedly removed by the Polish army in the mid 1950s. Apart from the swarms of mosquitoes which plague the site, the area is remarkably peaceful.
We take a few steps into Hitler’s bunker – a strong draft blows through the main corridor.
We arrive in the central Polish city of Torun´ around 9 pm where our host Kristof – Micha’s old housemate from Berlin – has gathered together some friends from Gdan´ sk for a Kredens (a house-warming party/welcome party). The recently constructed apartment building is so new that it is mostly empty, the construction of the lift is not complete and the building smells of paint.
On entering Kristof’s new home his friends and girlfriend welcome us with an array of local delicacies, including cheeses, salamis and pickles. A range of supposedly low alcoholic vodka drinks are offered, including a homemade version and a concoction known as ‘Angry dog’ made from vodka, sweet berry syrup, Tabasco sauce and pepper. Kristof offers a simple recommendation: “This one is necessary to drink all at once.” It’s then time for our much feared initiation into the Polish clubbing scene – as relatively unseasoned clubbers this experience can only be described as interesting.
Day 4 – Torun´
We begin our final day in Poland with a breakfast of savoury and sweet pancakes in the town centre. The streets are crowded with people enjoying the local Health Day marathon and Sunday entertainment. We climb Mariachi (Mary’s church) to get a view of the Gothic buildings that earned Torun´ its World Heritage Site designation in 1997.
Torun´ lies on the banks of the Vistula River and marks the site of the intersection of an important ancient trade route. The layout of the streets in the Old Town has not been changed for centuries and areas of the 13th century-built Castle of the Teutonic Knights (German crusading military order) and other medieval fortifications including the fortress, tower dungeons, gates and moats remain.
We stop at one of the many stores selling Katarzynka – traditional decorative gingerbread. I chat with our newly made Polish friends about their country’s future and their thoughts on adopting the Euro. While the unemployment rate, currently at 13%, is decreasing, they seem to have mixed opinions about Poland’s entry into the EU and the government’s partly EU-paid spending spree. One of our friends explains that while she, like many Poles, has studied and worked abroad she now intends on staying in Poland.
To the sound of Polish folk songs on the radio, we drive off into the afternoon sun on the highway back to Germany. The natural beauty, stunning architecture, and kind hospitality of the Polish people have earned our sure return.

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