Rolling off the ferry in Gdansk proved somewhat less difficult than predicted – with a bit of shuffling, they had us turn in a big arc within the bowels of the ship and drive out forwards – easy. And that was the last bit of easy driving we had during our three days in Poland!
As we rolled out of the ferry terminal we discovered that our trusty i-Phone Tom Tom Western Europe sat nav on which we have depended every step of the journey thus far didn’t include coverage for Poland. Our map book does, is good, but was too small a scale to help us through Gdansk to our campsite. We turned on the data roaming function of the phone and turned to Google Maps, a simple and effective alternative, but even the mighty Google was no match for Poland’s extensive road building – we headed straight into a closed road, with no signs of a diversion. A quick u-turn (I’m getting good at these) and a few heated words (car navigation is said to be one of the biggest causes of divorce!) later and we found our way on to the right route. The roads were in a terrible state, deeply rutted by trucks, poorly repaired again and again, so that when we weren’t caught in a rut we found ourselves being rattled and shaken like a pneumatic drill. We drove through Gdansk, past grim, grey, slab-sided communist era blocks of flats, run-down factories which appeared derelict, closed or on their last legs and through the centre of the city, catching glimpses of what appeared to be the old city. Our campsite, Stoggi Plaza camping was on the edge of the city near the coast. As we approached, we saw the beginnings of colour on blocks of flats – brightly painted buildings, beautiful displays of flowers in window boxes. We rattled and bumped along the approach road to the plaza and into the campsite, at first glance a rather miserable collection of run-down old caravans, mostly bearing NL stickers so presumably imported old second hand from Holland) huddled under cover , a few more spread through the small site as permanent placements, and a rather primitive looking lavatory and shower block. We parked up on the hard-standing, set up the electricity and water, locked everything up carefully and, rather heavy heartedly, set off to go into Gdansk.
A quick walk back to the approach road took us to the tram terminus and the waiting number 8 tram. We hopped on board the new and comfortable carriage, and with no evidence of ticket machines, set off ticketless towards town (we hoped). The journey was easy and quick, the tram filling with passengers as we progressed – school kids on their way home (young and independent), shoppers, pensioners – a real immersion in Gdansk’s community. We soon found ourselves back in the heart of the city on the route we’d driven. We walked through the impressive city gate, and emerged into the beautiful heart of the old city. As time was short we took a guided city tour on a golf-buggy driven by a young eloquent and engaging man who is studying civil engineering in Gdansk University. With the pre-recorded tourist information played through the buggy’s speakers and embellished by our guide we were quickly immersed in the fascinating and turbulent history of this historically important town. Teutonic, Prussian, Polish, independent of either Poland or Germany between the wars, overrun and occupied by the Germans in September 1939 (the Gdansk Post Office was said to be the site of the very beginning of the Second World War as the German forces attacked what was a vital communications link), bombed almost to oblivion by the invading and ‘liberating’ Russians as they overcame the German’s defences, subjected to forty years of oppressive Soviet control, and then the focal point of the end of the communist era with the first strikes by shipyard workers lead by Lech Walesa’s Solidarity in 1970 leading to the eventual fall of communism in 1989 (wow, the whole history of Gdansk in one sentence!). And through this turbulent history, Gdansk’s citizens clung on to their deep faith, sustaining many historic churches in the beautiful old city centre along the river. The beautiful old town of Gdansk with its elegant houses and a whole historic street lined with vendors of Amber jewellery, the gold of the Baltic (I have a pair of amber cufflinks bought by Frances’ mother Susie [Mummy Sue] from this very street) made a big impression on us all, Frances in particular.
Our spirits lifted by all that we’d seen and fortified by a delicious dinner of Polish pork dumplings washed down by a well-earned beer, we made our way back to the tram for the ride back to the caravan site. This time the carriage, a much older relic of the communist era was filled with commuters returning home tired from a day’s work. Many would be workers from the famous shipyards whose numerous cranes dominate the Gdansk skyline. Our guide had told us that the dockyards would be closing after the completion of ships currently in production – this must create a terrible uncertainty for the thousands who work there.
After a night’s rest only slightly disturbed by an incessant distant alarm, and brought to a rather abrupt conclusion by what sounded like a massive steam-hammer pounding away in a nearby factory, we packed up to leave. Before setting off we paid a quick exploratory visit to the nearby beach, a real revelation – a lovely long sandy beach stretching into the distance, with dunes being carefully conserved and stabilised with vegetation as a wildlife reserve, signs informing visitors about the whales and porpoises to be seen off-shore, and the massive adjacent container terminal the only slight blot on the landscape (that was the source of the nightime noises!). So we paddled in the Baltic, let our feet dry in the fine white sand, and then set off on the drive to our next stop, Elblang.
We dispatched the hundred or so kms pretty quickly and arrived at our campsite, a lovely grassy site right on the bank of the river. The owners of the site gave us an extremely warm welcome, directing us to a riverside pitch, with trees providing us welcome shade and privacy. We made camp, and again set off immediately to Malbork Castle. Sadly we arrived as the interiors were closing, but that didn’t really detract from the experience of this incredible Teutonic castle built between 1270 and the mid 1300’s, said to be the largest brick built castle in Europe. Its scale was simply awesome, with ring after ring of defensive walls and moats encircling the central fortress, each wall of which was impenetrably thick – I counted seven bricks end-to-end thick! Around the outside was evidence of fierce fighting in 1945 – sprays of machine gun bullets pock-marking the walls, shell-holes with clearly visible blast marks – but few had managed to penetrate more than a few bricks deep! The castle and grounds appear to have been extensively renovated in recent years and it’s now a major tourist attraction and no doubt a vital part of the local economy. And all of this experienced in glorious sunshine – a rare treat so far!
As we left the castle we heard a chorus of car horns and saw the cars departing the church with a wedding party. Two local guys, clearly not connected to the wedding at all stood in front of the bridal car, until the driver emerged, walked around to the boot of the car from which he produced a bottle of vodka which he gave to the guys – they sloped off looking very pleased with themselves! Back at the campsite we feasted on Kassler roasted in the caravan oven and sauerkraut, a German dinner bought in a Swedish supermarket, cooked and wolfed down by an English family in a Polish campsite!
Sunday was an early start in order to join a cruise up the Elblank river to the Pochylnie Kanalu Elblaskiego. It was a sunny morning, so despite the brisk early morning temperatures we took our seats on the relatively empty deck of the boat and settled down for what we expected to be a quiet morning. Just before the departure time a coach pulled up alongside, disgorging a large contingent who swarmed up on deck and sat around us. They were all in high spirits, laughing and joking with each other as we dropped the mooring and headed off upstream past our campsite and on past the many hapless fishermen who lined the river banks and who all responded good-naturedly to their repetitive wise-cracks, I presume about whether the fish were biting. Pretty soon (before nine o’clock) the vodka was being passed around, and offered to us! We declined, and felt somewhat anxious about how the morning would unfold.
The boat made steady and quiet progress up stream, leaving the industrial edge of Elblang behind in favour of beautiful wetlands and lakes teeming with wildlife – dragonflies darting amongst the reeds, cormorants spreading their wings in the warming sun, flights of birds beginning their southerly migration overhead, even we think an otter spied amongst the reeds. The reed beds were vast and a valuable resource – evidently in the winter as the lakes and wetlands freeze up to a foot thick, special combine harvesters are able to drive across the ice to cut the reeds which are then dried and exported throughout Europe for roof-thatching. We continued on upstream to the beginning of the main reason for the cruise – the utterly incredible system off five boat lifts which haul boats up to fifty tons displacement up rail tracks covering some 90m in elevation. It really is an incredible experience – the boat approaches the foot of a grassy bank with just a large turning wheel and rails up the banks as evidence of anything out of the ordinary. The boat is carefully manoeuvred into a small dock, tied up, the engines shut down and a bell is rung by an attendant. And then silently, steadily, eerily, the dock and boat begins to move forwards – and then upwards! It leaves the water behind and is hauled up the rails some 20 metres to the summit of the grassy slope and into the next level of the river. And all of this happens without a sound – a huge waterwheel at the high-side is used to haul the cables, pulling the boat up or letting another down the slope. Amazing. Built in the 1860s by the Prussian King Frederich as a demonstration of Prussian inventiveness and engineering, it is the only boat lift of its kind in the world (I believe there was one in Canada but it’s no longer operational).
Our fellow passengers, a group of Polish electrical workers from a central Polish town (I don’t recall the name) were equally appreciative and very friendly. Fortunately the vodka wasn’t in too great supply so things didn’t get out of hand. A couple of them, including their guide or group leader spoke a little English and German and we were able to communicate quite effectively. We left them at the summit of the boat lifts as we boarded a coach for the much quicker drive back to Elblang. We spent a lazy afternoon briefly exploring the old town and then relaxing in the campsite, Charlie practising her fishing skills, George and I reading in the sunshine, Frances visiting the supermarket before barbecuing delicious Polish sausages for dinner. What a great day.
Monday (yesterday) we broke camp in good time and set off from Elblang towards Germany. We were sorry to leave the campsite – it was a real oasis, peaceful, green, clean, well maintained and very inexpensive – 140 zloty for three nights (that’s about £25!). The weather was glorious as we headed west, which was some mitigation for the roads, which, not to put too fine a point on it were bloody awful! The heavy rutting we’d experienced in Gdansk was much in evidence – but that was the least of the problems. For a stretch of about 100kms the road was so bumpy that we couldn’t make much more than about 50-60kmh, bouncing and rattling as we went – one long section, covering perhaps 10kms was even cobbled! It’s easy to imagine that the roads haven’t been repaired properly since they were damaged first by the German tanks rolling east in 1939 and then by the Russians rolling west in 1945 – it certainly felt that way! As we moved further west the repair and rebuilding programmes were more in evidence, until we finally hit smooth, fast European standard autobahn with a few kms to go before the border with Germany. A brief stop in the afternoon for the celebrated polish hot-chocolates and coffee (despite the warm sunny weather) and was very welcome, although ended rather sadly with the loss of Charlie’s orthodontic brace. We hastily returned to the café to look for it, and found it…or what remained of it, sadly crushed under the wheels of the giant articulated lorry which had taken our place in the car park.
Poland is clearly a country undergoing a modern day renaissance. In places and in many ways, it is rapidly catching up with its EU contemporaries – new buildings replacing old and bright paint and modern windows to improve those not replaced, new roads and improvements to old, big modern European supermarkets (Carrefour, Leclerc, even Tesco) on the edge of every town, and plenty of modern cars and trucks everywhere demonstrate the rapid progress made since the advent of democracy. With a beautiful and clearly highly productive rural landscape, it would be easy to think that all was rosy for the Polish population. But the fact that so many Poles leave their families to live in poor conditions and undertake menial jobs throughout the more prosperous countries of the EU demonstrates just how tough life here really must be. With the shipyards closing, the general slowdown in growth of the European economy, the massive increase in the cost of fuel and the other day to day requirements of life, things must be pretty grim for those not lucky enough to be part of the emerging middle class swept up by Poland’s modernising economy. There's an enormous struggle ahead for poland as it grapples with the enormous task of modernising its decrepit soviet era infrastructure and of building a robust democracy - I gather the cause of plane crash which killed the president and so many other senior politcal and religious leaders last year remains unsolved.
Once we hit the billiard-table smoothness of the autobahn our speeds were at last able to increase, the welcome, familiar if rather insistent tones of the sat nav returned (ok, yes, we will take the next left at the roundabout!) and we barrelled on into the setting sun towards Berlin. It was dark by the time we’d skirted the city and had found our way to our campsite at Potsdam, a big and fabulously equipped site next to a beautiful lake. We made camp with a lakeside view, filled up the water with our on-pitch water supply(!) and headed to dinner and a welcome beer at the onsite restaurant (only our second dinner ‘out’ so far). Over dinner we learnt of the site’s history: in a hunting forest established by the Kaisers, it was formerly in the Eastern sector where it it was the preserve of Soviet apparatchiks – perhaps it was here that Khrushchev and his Politburo hatched their plot to deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba, right under the noses of JFK’s USA which nearly sparked what would have been the third and probably final world war! Certainly from here Stalin would have watched in frustration as the allied Berlin airlift maintained its desperate and ultimately successful struggle to keep West Berlin open.
We’ve woken to a warm day and a thunderstorm. The forecast for the week is great, so perhaps this is just a brief episode. We’re really looking forward to some warm dry weather. After our long drive we’re enjoying a restful morning on the site – time to do loads of washing, write the blog, catch up with reading. The kids had a hard day’s school work in the car yesterday (George is mid-way through an epic creative writing piece based on his recent experiences of Malbork castle – hopefully he’ll post it to the blog in due course) – and there will be plenty of immersive learning over the next few days, so they’re relaxing this morning. We’re now a bit behind our itinerary posted a couple of weeks ago as we spent more time in Poland, so we’ll revise and repost it in due course. We’ll visit Potsdam this afternoon, and then head into Berlin tomorrow.