Saturday, 30 October 2010

Poland 2 - Warsaw

We spent a total of 8 days in Warsaw, our longest break from travelling since staying with friends in France at the end of May. We were in part seduced by luxury, for our friend Nick has a flat – or more accurately, a penthouse – in a new block near the centre, with a glorious top-floor terrace and panoramic windows, which was ideally suited for sorties into the city, and a comfortable base for relaxing too. In part too I (Rob) was seduced by this city, which I have visited before but never had the chance to explore to this extent, and it became increasingly fascinating the more time we spent there.

Warsaw – evening rush hour on Jerozolimskie Street in the city centre

Nick gave us a warm welcome, and the first two evenings were spent in fine restaurants serving high quality versions of traditional Polish food, washed down by a good deal of wine and vodka (giving us the first real hangovers in a long time!). After that though we had a few days in the flat on our own as Nick was away on business, and we shared another couple of evenings together when he got back the following week.
Out to dinner together

We visited many of the most famous parts of the city together, and on other days, while Lesley got on with some writing in the flat, I (Rob) went out on my bike to delve deeper into a few more off the beaten track parts of the city.
Marszałkowska Street

First a little bit of history about the city. Its heyday as a seat of power and wealth was between the 16th and 18th centuries, as the royal capital of Poland and then the Polish-Lithuanian union. This finally came to an end in 1795 when Poland was carved up between the emerging Russian, Prussian (German) and Austrian empires, and Warsaw came under Russian rule. A Polish state only re-emerged in 1920, to be snuffed out once again by the evil duet of Hitler and Stalin in 1939. There had been a Jewish community in Warsaw for centuries, as in most Polish towns, and before the Second World War around a third of the population was Jewish, with a vibrant cultural and economic life that was an integral part of the flavour of the city.

Two episodes in particular during the Second World War conspired to change the face of Warsaw. The first was the incarceration, in 1940, of the city’s Jewish population in an overcrowded walled ghetto in the centre, followed by their torment and extermination in a story that is already well known. In April 1943 Jewish fighters mounted an armed uprising in a desperate last attempt to resist the Nazi occupiers who were sending the imprisoned population to the death camps. The ghetto uprising ended in tragedy, with all but a handful of Warsaw’s Jews killed, and parts of north-central Warsaw razed to the ground. The second was the ‘Warsaw Uprising’ of August 1944, when underground units of the Polish army rose up against the Germans in the hope of liberating their capital, with, they hoped, some support from the Red Army. The latter was not forthcoming and tragedy was the outcome here too. Tens of thousands were executed in revenge, and Hitler gave the order to destroy anything and everything that was important to the Poles. The Royal Palace, much of the Old Town, as well as numerous other landmarks, were dynamited to rubble, and the rest of the city set to the torch by the German forces before they retreated.

City in rubble, and a pavement marker on the course of the ghetto wall

Many of the important historic buildings had therefore vanished by 1945. However, the new Polish state put enormous resources into rebuilding the historic quarters, essentially the Old Town, the New Town (itself pretty old, but less so than the Old Town) and the Royal Way streets. It may seem ironic that a communist government restored a royal palace, but it happened. The results were a minor miracle, and these areas are still stunning to this day, with a period feel that completely belies the young age of much that you now see.
Warsaw Old Town

The Old Town is the place I (Lesley) had heard about from reading other people’s travel blogs. Everyone heads for there, and you can see why. The post-war reconstruction faithfully followed photographs and paintings to rebuild the whole area from the skeleton remains of cellars and a few walls. In doing so Warsaw was given back its enormously attractive historical centre of merchant’s houses from the 15th to 17th centuries, complete with patterns painted on the exterior walls and, in some cases, quite a bit of gilding. It had the usual tourist gifts, artists sketching your portrait and some restaurants geared to a tourist menu, but none of it was over-done or in your face. We wandered on into the streets of the New Town - ‘New’ only by comparison with the Old Town, being originally built in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was too a post-war reconstruction, but strangely enough, the sixty years since the rebuilding have done a lot to age the buildings, making them look no different to buildings of their supposed age all over Europe.
Warsaw centre from across the Vistula - Old Town and Royal Palace

Adjoining the Old Town is the so-called Royal Way (Trakt Królewski), one long street called at first Krakowskie Przedmieście (‘Krakow Suburb’ as it lay on the Krakow road) and further down becoming Nowy Świat (‘New World’). The streets are lined by carefully restored 18th century townhouses, with a concentration of grander buildings at the Old Town end – the Presidential Palace and Warsaw University to name but two. They have the same historic feel as the Old and New Towns, but have a busy commercial and street life that keeps them part of the modern city, as opposed to the rather preserved-for-tourists feel of the former. Nowy Świat has a busy café and restaurant scene, and we indulged in cheap pierogi (like ravioli, but in the shape of small Cornish pasties) at a bar mleczny, which is a sort of self-service canteen doing traditional home cooking. You choose from a list on the wall though, and so you have to know something about Polish food or you take pot luck. A reasonable lunch for two, including maślanka (a yoghurt-like buttermilk drink), came to about 16 złoty (£4.50). Our friend Nick wouldn’t be seen dead in one of these “milk bars”, but we rather like them, having first come across them twenty years ago on our first visit to Poland.
Royal Way - Krakowskie Przedmieście and Nowy Świat

We were surprised at how well endowed with parks Warsaw was, and the sunny autumnal days of our visit lent them a golden glow. There are such spaces all over the city, some of them remnants from old estates with little trace of their original buildings. In the Saxon Gardens there are some sandstone statues in a Rococo style and some arches which are now part of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which are all that is left of a once grand palace. Another set of leafy parks are situated all along the escarpment above the river Vistula, just a stone’s throw from the crowds on the Royal Way but entirely unsuspected by the casual visitor.
Saxon Gardens - Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Warsaw is much more than just the Old Town and Royal Way though. No visitor can fail to notice its highest building and surely few can walk past it without humming the theme tune to Ghostbusters. The Palace of Culture and Science is a 195Os skyscraper in Stalinist wedding-cake style, which rises in narrowing tiers above the Warsaw skyline. Regular readers of this blog will get déjà vu, as it is a dead ringer for the Academy of Sciences in Riga (see the ‘Latvia’ blog entry for pictures). Not an exact clone, for the Warsaw tower is larger, and has many more outbuildings at its base. Statues around the walls evoke a Greco-Roman feel, putting the stress on the classicism in ‘Stalinist neo-classicism’, while the roof decorations are positively gothic, and take their inspiration from 16th century styles of Polish renaissance architecture. It was the vogue for a long time to slate this building, as it was imposed by an uninvited foreign power, but I (Rob) find it a magnificent and inspiring piece of architecture. If you reject architecture because of its sponsors, then you must surely reject Roman amphitheatres and temples, and many Renaissance palaces which were also built by foul regimes and individuals.
Palace of Culture and Statue on the Palace of Culture

The other triumph of early communist reconstruction is to be found a little further south, lining the southern end of the long Marszałkowska Avenue. A huge new residential area was to be built here, known by its Polish acronym of MDM, with at its heart a new oblong square called Plac Konstytucji (‘Constitution Square’). This makes a grand public space, with its confident stone buildings and high arches and arcades, and is on a par with many 19th century squares in European cities.
The MDM development - Arcades on Marszałkowska and Detail on Plac Konstytucji

Just beyond the square on Marszałkowska stand some of the best socialist-realist reliefs you are likely to see, of the idealised workers, soldiers and mothers of Soviet mythology. I thought some had particularly Polish faces.
Socialist realist statues on Marszałkowska

Not all of Warsaw was razed in the war. Elsewhere in these southern districts there are many fine older buildings to be seen, from the numerous minor palaces of Aleje Ujazdowskie, through the elegant villas of Mokotów and Ochota, to the many small art nouveau flourishes on apartment buildings, which are becoming more apparent as the façades are cleaned and repainted.
 ‘Pałaczyk’ (mini-palace) on Ujazdowskie

In the northern city centre, two monuments to the Warsaw Uprising and the ‘Ghetto heroes’ recall the savagery of the 1940s here. Of the ghetto area itself nothing still stands and nothing has been reconstructed, and the district is now occupied by anonymous post-war slab-style housing blocks. I (Rob) visited the newly opened Uprising Museum, and was captivated for three hours by the displays on the background, the events and the follow-up to the uprising of 1944. It was only opened in the last few years, which might seem a bit late, but the uprising was rather a taboo subject in communist Poland. Put simply, the uprising was organised by the ‘wrong’ resistance, the non-communist one, and the post-war regime clung to the lie that the defeat of fascism was down to communists alone and tried to besmirch the reputation of any other contenders to that claim.

Warsaw is a city of monuments, and in so many of its squares communist statues have been replaced by resurrected pre-communist figures, or by new memorials to the non-communist resistance and the victims of communism itself.
Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (1948) and Warsaw Uprising Monument (1989)

Like Poland as a whole, Warsaw is looking much better now than in the early 1990s.
People look better dressed, the shops are full, and in both these areas the differences between east and west are no longer apparent. Buildings are cleaner and brighter, and new ones (of good and bad design) replace some of the empty gaps and decrepit old hulks that dotted the city centre 20 years ago. Of course it is not universally good and, as in many large cities, some people are still reduced to scavenging or begging, but fewer than in the shock days of economic transition in the 1990s, and it looks like the hard times are gradually receding into memory. Personally, I (Rob) rather miss all the little kiosks that crowded the city pavements and formed the backbone of shopping in those days, and regret the arrival of the big multi-national chains – TK Maxx, Marks and Spencer, Carrefour etc – but I guess that is the price of integration into the European mainstream, and it is a clock that few would turn back.
Warsaw - New and old - New office tower and tram, Old style milk bar and Tesco on ‘Solidarity’ Avenue

It was a real wrench to leave Warsaw. We enjoyed the city’s hustle and bustle, its cafes and milk bars, its architecture and its history. We also appreciated the comfort of Nick’s apartment, but Greece was calling and to get there we need to travel, so we left on Thursday 21st October heading south-east along the banks of the Vistula.
 John Lennon Street, and Palace of Culture at sunset

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Poland 1 - Mostly Masuria

Border into Poland

‘Dzień dobry. Dokumenty’. These were the first words that greeted us in Poland, about 5 minutes after we had entered the country on an abysmal minor road from Lithuania. As we bumped along through the woods, Lesley had said ‘Oh look, there’s a police car amongst those trees!’. The car rolled slowly onto the gravel road and I joked ‘I hope they’re not coming after us’. A moment later we were flagged down. All went well until they asked us for the ‘technical document’. I found an MOT certificate in the bundle of papers, but realised a moment too late that this was last year’s, and I had left the current one at home for safe keeping, not thinking anyone anywhere would ever want to see it. Oh dear. I fumbled and searched while they retired to their patrol car with our documents, but we must have had honest faces for they returned quickly and handed everything back with a smile and an ‘OK, you go’.

I (Lesley) did wonder if they might “do” us for having a dangerous dog though, since Charlie let us down. One of the guys leant close in to the window the dog sits by and Charlie just let rip. You’ve never seen a big guy move so quick! His hand gestures of a big mouth biting inches from his face said it all, but I have to say it was a bit wimpy for a copper as there was a window between teeth and face! It’s nice to know Charlie will defend the van though.

The first pole we encountered!

Despite being momentarily lost for words with the police, once in Poland I (Rob) suddenly found that I had got the power of speech back. We visited the country in 1990 and 1991 just after the fall of communism, and I made a big effort to learn the language then, and a lot of it has stuck. I won’t exaggerate – I make the most appalling mistakes, forget words and only understand a fraction of what is said back to me, but I can walk into most situations and make myself understood in basic Polish, which is more than I’ve been capable of in the last few countries.

Wigry monastery at sunset – view from our campsite

After our brush with the law we headed towards Suwałki. Setting our clocks back an hour meant we really had to start looking for somewhere to stop by about 4:30 p.m., especially if we are wild camping, which usually involves finding wood and lighting a fire. It means our day is getting pretty short, with sunset now at 5:45 p.m. How different to those midnights still sitting outside reading that we enjoyed in Norway! Luckily for us, just before Suwałki we came to an area of large lakes, which turned out to be the Wigry National Park. We had brought no guide book on Poland with us, and on this first day were relying on roadside tourist boards for maps and information. We followed signs to Wigry village, which sits on a peninsula in the lake, and what a find the place turned out to be. The small campsite not only bordered the lake, but sat almost under the walls of a grand baroque monastery, perched on a hill and floodlit to great effect all night.

Wigry monastery

The next morning we woke to a trumpet solo echoing from the walls of the monastery. We had no idea what it was all about, but it happened the following morning too and a sort of last post was played in the evening. The monastery complex went back to the 1500s, but was more or less completely rebuilt in the 1960s after years of neglect and war, and was turned into an arts centre with accommodation. The church was visited by John Paul II in 1999. He preached in the field next to the one we camped in and slept in a plain little room in the old monastery. Just that in itself seems to be enough to draw in the tour parties these days. The JPII trail, which follows the places he visited, is even advertised in tourist literature and you can tour the lake on the “Pope’s cruiser” (he obviously took a boat trip in 1999). JPII is big business these days and many churches we passed had posters pushing him for fast track beatification.

Wigry monastery

We had been really lucky with the weather for about 10 days and the prospect of yet another autumnal scorcher made us decide to stay at Wigry for a second night, giving me a chance to write and providing Rob with an opportunity to cycle into nearby Suwałki to shop in the market. Another reason for stopping an extra night at Wigry was to get our washing done and late in the afternoon the woman handed back our bag with a lot of smiles and conversation. Unfortunately it was all very quick and uncatchable and it wasn’t until we began to fold the clothes and put them away that it became obvious that no water had touched any of our clothes. We had no idea what had gone wrong, but it explained why they were brilliantly dry!


From Suwałki we moved westward into the Masurian lake district. We passed through some lovely rolling countryside with frequent small lakes around Hańcza, and then on the road through Gołdap to the start of the lakes proper at Węgorzewo. Near the village of Bolcie the road passed within 100 metres of the Tri-border Point, where the frontiers of Poland, Lithuania, and the Kaliningrad exclave of Russia meet, and a newish stone obelisk marked the point, lying just within Polish territory. I am not sure whether I (Rob) was meant to walk right up to it past the border warning notices, but I saw no border patrols on any side to stop me. Of these countries, Russia alone was surrounded by a strip of ploughed earth between fences.

Gołdap and Tri-border point - Russia is top left, Lithuania top right

Russia’s presence here is a hangover from the second world war. The Kaliningrad district occupies what was once the northern half of the German province of East Prussia, and is separated from the rest of Russia by Lithuania. In 1945 the Soviet Union decided to confiscate the easternmost parts of German territory, and gave most of it to Poland – while grabbing large parts of eastern Poland for itself – but kept this one bit for Russia, to ensure direct control of the important naval port of Königsberg, which it renamed Kaliningrad. The Kaliningrad district is today the hardest part of the Baltics to visit, requiring as it does a full Russian visa, which is sufficient to put off all but the most determined tourist.

Former German complex near Dubeninki

The southern half of East Prussia has been incorporated into Poland since 1945, and the Masurian lakes fall within its former borders. I (Rob) am always fascinated by the recent history and shifting borders of these areas, and was on the look-out for traces of the province’s former, German, life. We did begin to notice some larger, brick farm buildings that looked like they had belonged to estates, as well as a few smaller rural brick-built houses that reminded us of northern Germany, but the signs were initially few as so much had been built and rebuilt after 1945. Many towns had suffered severe war damage and were reconstructed in a standard Polish style of the time with rows of mid-rise apartment blocks right in the town centres, but a few buildings of the older style still stood, as did some brick churches that must surely have been post-1945 rebuilds faithful to the original styles. The populace however is entirely Polish – the enforced population movements of the Stalinist and post-war periods ensured this.

Węgorzewo - new and old

The towns we passed through, such as Gołdap, Węgorzewo and Giżycko, were generally quite attractive affairs despite their post-war rebuilding, with wide squares and plenty of trees. The lakeside towns made good use of their settings, and in summer must be humming with activity at the bars, restaurants and marinas. Other towns however, such as Mikołajki and Mrągowo had evidently been damaged far less in the war, and their main streets gave an impression of how such places must have looked before 1945, albeit many old buildings were overlaid with the patina of grime and gentle neglect that was a hallmark of Poland in the communist years. There are also in some places stately homes built by the Prussian gentry, which are often in a state of disrepair, and we came across one such at Sztynort on the shores of Lake Mamry. The other strong reminder of the last days of the German presence in these parts is a series of quite massive concrete bunkers hidden in the forests that were to serve as a defensive line against the Russian advance in 1945.

Sztynort – Palac/Schloss and view N to lake Mamry

Poland looks better than it did in 1990. Back then the towns looked worn-out and threadbare after decades of communist ineptitude and economic stagnation, but today they are, generally, brighter and smarter, and many of the gaps in the streetscapes are filled with new buildings. Shops are easier to find, better stocked and busier. The villages too have many new houses, showing that for many people things are indeed getting better.

Lake Mamry at Kietlice - view from campsite jetty

The autumn sunshine brought out the best of the Masurian Lakes, and it is easy to see why this landscape of water, woods and gentle pastureland should attract so many summer visitors. The area has a huge number of places to stay. We made use of several unstaffed camping sites – called ‘miejsce biwakowania’ or ‘pole namiotowe’ in Polish – which are often beautifully located in trees or by water. These include places to light campfires, if little else, but finding a real campsite with electricity and showers is becoming increasingly difficult just at the time we need to use them more frequently.

Bogaczewo miejsce biwakowe – bivouac site – first photo taken on laptop webcam and second is of Rob fishing in the dark

The sunny days we have enjoyed since the start of October have brought daytime temperatures as high as 19°C. However, once the sun has gone down it is a different matter. The lowest temperature we had in the night was minus 3°C, and Poland gave us our first frosts in the mornings. All this means we have to have heating of some kind. We suspect we’ve gone wrong somewhere with the gas situation and can’t work out how other motorhomers manage. They can’t all be using refillable bottles. Why there can’t be some kind of European standard bottle is beyond us, but as it stands, finding gas is still not proving easy. No-one here can refill our camping gaz 907 and we are regretting not buying some kind of (dodgy/illegal?) adaptor from e-bay before we left home. As for our Norwegian Statoil bottle, well it looks as though the Statoil garages in Poland stock a completely different type, so exchange is unlikely. There is a possibility of refilling, but we have to actually use it up before we can try that. If it then turns out it can’t be refilled we’re a bit stuck and will have to splash out another £40 to £50 as a deposit on yet another type of bottle, which will probably be defunct in the next country. What it does mean is that we have decided to stay on campsites a bit more so we can get electricity. We are now proud owners of an electric hotplate and a small oil-filled radiator to use when we are hooked up. I (Lesley) also get to have a hot shower as the van has a great electric immersion in the boiler, as well as working on gas, and I can dry my hair afterwards. So that’s at least every other day on a campsite if possible. In between we’ll wild camp if we can and Rob can carry on being Ray Mears with the fire thing.

The old town square at Pisz was attractive

Another bivouac site at Lupki near Pisz

I’m still hoping that as we move south we keep to these temperatures, though Rob says I am a fool and know nothing about continental climates. I admit, geography has never been my strong point, but I’ve always been great on optimism! Actually, my geography has come on leaps and bounds this trip. I not only know where countries are - once we’ve visited them anyway, I also know about glacial landscapes, including erratic boulders, terminal moraines and hanging valleys. There seem to be quite a few bits of Scandinavia all the way down here in Poland, deposited by glaciers many moons ago, though the erratics are a great deal smaller than the ones we saw in Estonia.

Mragowo ( formerly Sensburg), where there is a great deal of Germanic style architecture surviving from the pre-war period

On Wednesday 13th we set off on our next stage southwards, to Warsaw.