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.

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