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So, we came back "home" a year after we had left. Well, that is what we and our families and friends thought but we still had the appetite, means and opportunity for a little "travel pudding". This had been in the backs of our minds for some time but we didn't know whether it would be possible. First we spent a hectic month touring around, visiting family and friends, and doing some groundwork for a possible move away from London. By the end of June we were definitely ready for a break, in the form of more travel! After stopping off in Brussels to visit Stef's mum again we drove east in our trusty VW Golf, nicknamed "Eddie" (Steady Eddie). We had a rather loose itinerary in mind, basically covering northern Poland and the Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and then heading south to cover central and southern Poland, Slovakia, "Czechia" and Hungary, as well as Romania, Moldova and Bulgaria (we didn't make it to the latter three).

Note: We have been uploading pictures on a regular basis, but it'll take us a little longer to do the diary updates!

This was the first half of our tour through Eastern Europe, taking in a number of countries that have some things in common but are more marked by their differences.

Poland had not featured very much in our thinking and it didn't conjure up images of a particularly exciting or "exotic" travel destination at first. We had an image of a heavily industrialised flat country. Well, it certainly was flat for the most part, with the notable exception of the Tatra mountains, and it did have some industrial bits too but far less than we had imagined. Instead we found a country covered with extensive forests, fantastic food, and we found the Poles themselves to be some of the most warm-hearted and friendly people we had met anywhere so far.

As for the trio of the Baltic states, whilst they were united geographically, there were some very deep differences between them, in terms of language and in their history, before the Soviet occupation during the twentieth century. This is where we experienced most what it must have been like "behind the Iron Curtain", travelling through parts of the former USSR. Lithuania was a former powerhouse of the region, its history intertwined with that of Poland. Latvia, with the Baltic metropolis of Riga, felt like the "piggy in the middle" but had its very own atmosphere. And Estonia felt very Scandinavian, in contrast to the previous two.

Update 14 February 2008: Still adding diary entries, bit by bit ...

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Weserrenaissance architecture in Hameln. Flying the flags for the Fussball-Weltmeisterschaft

Yippee! We’re off again, our fifth continent, touring around Eastern Europe for around three months, as I had hoped for. The plan is to cover Eastern Europe in two halves: first northern Poland and the Baltic States for a month, returning to Brussels for Mama’s birthday on 1 August, and then off to the rest, down to Bulgaria, for a further two months. Together with Mama we had breakfast, got ourselves ready and packed up, and set off around 10am, onto the Belgian motorways. We headed off in the wrong direction at first, towards Waterloo, but with a quick u-ey at Jezus-Eik we were soon afterwards zooming down the E40 to Luik/Liège and on to Aachen, crossing into Germany without a border to mention.

On it went, past Cologne and bending up to Dortmund, then east to Hannover. Rather than head into Hannover, or pushing on past it, we decided to make a stop for the night at Hameln, to the south-west of Hannover. We figured this would be a more quiet place than Hannover to spend the night. I was intrigued to take a look at Hameln, “Hamlyn” in English, of the Pied Piper story. I was hoping to find a picturesque little old town, if nothing else.

Between Wezembeek-Oppem and Hameln we drove under a grey, “leaden”, sky of monotone grey with no sight of either sunshine, sky, or even proper clouds. It drained the landscape of any colour. Combined with motorway driving through the densely populated parts of Belgium and the German Ruhr region it was one of the most boring drives and scenery we have had on our trip. It was just so dull… We swapped driving a few times – this worked well as neither of us got too tired this way. Just inside Germany we made a stop for lunch at one of the smaller …erm… stops, enough to have a “kurry wurst und kaffee”. The final part of the drive was along a smaller road through green countryside of rolling hills, forests and fields. Pretty without being especially scenic. Tidy German rural countryside. Quite a contrast to the motorway drive where beemers and mercs just flew past us in the outside lane, the absence of speed limits encouraging some pretty reckless driving.

We tootled along and arrived at the tidy old market town of Hameln around 6pm. Tourist information was still open and we booked into a “cheap” (€70, gulp) city centre hotel, perfect. With a little trial and error we managed to park the car and checked into our room. A little basic perhaps but excellent value, slap-bang in the centre along the Neue Markt, one of the quiet cobbled old town streets with medieval town houses, and still with some character.

We dumped our bags and went out for a walk and dinner. The French football team are staying somewhere in Hameln for the football world championship, and the town is decked out with French tri-colours. Hameln was a small typical market town with a lot of Shrewsbury “black and white”. The correct expression apparently is “Weserrenaissance” style, with lots of colourful decorations on stepped gables and windows, rather like a fairy-tale town. The Rattenfänger story references are everywhere. There is a Rattenfängerhaus, a Rattenfänger krug (medieval bar), and there are performances, shows and town walks. The local musical is called “Rats”. For tonight we just stuck to finding somewhere for a drink and dinner. We walked to the Pferdenmarkt, the horse market, a street right by the central St. Niklaus church, and took seats at a terrace outside a café. There are stalls and stands selling food from different countries spread around the market, the cobbled streets in the middle of which the church stands. There are stalls for Spain (paella), Italy (pizza), a converted old Citroën van is decked out in the French colours and sells crepes. I’m amused to see a single stall to cover “Asia”. On one side of the church a big screen has been erected, and benches have been provided, to allow people to watch the football world championship games. Before the game started a local band was playing, just out of sight from where we were sat. We ordered drinks and schweinebraten with red cabbage, and after our meal turned our seats around to watch the France versus Spain game on the smaller screen set up by the café.

At some point the conversation turned to our Big Question, where are we going to live? We agreed that in a little market town like this would be the sort of thing we would both ideally like. It’s the sort of thing that Ness has had in mind for a long time and North Berwick, on which we have provisionally settled, is a lot smaller and falls far short of this kind of place. Doubts are beginning to creep in again. Anyway, we ended up having a lovely evening on what was only supposed to be a “stopover” night, but which came up trumps with a lovely relaxed atmosphere, in a charming historic town centre, with some tasty nosh and even a little schnapps as a digestif afterwards, and a comfortable hotel room. We strolled back and crashed out.

France won 1-0.

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After a busy day's rat-shopping ...
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... why not pop into the Rat Bar?
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Girls selling flowers in Międzyzdroje

It was another “bus day” but we managed to combine it with a little bit of sightseeing in Hameln first. It just seemed a shame to push on hastily without at least taking a look around. After a late breakfast in the cosy breakfast room downstairs and checking out, we parked Eddie in the central car park and took another stroll around the picturesque streets of old Hameln. This is Germany at its most picturesque with beautifully decorated sixteenth and seventeenth century merchant houses, such as the Rattenfängerhaus, the Dempsterhaus, the Leisthaus, and many more. There are references to the story of the pied piper everywhere. As for the legend itself, I won’t repeat it here, just try these links instead:

de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rattenfänger_von_Hameln

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pied_Piper.

We drove out of Hameln and on the country roads through the green rolling countryside towards Hannover and then on the fast German autobahn to Berlin and beyond. The kilometres clocked by, we swapped driving several times. Ness had a kip while I topped up on coffee at a pit stop and on we went, past Berlin and headed for the Polish border. By mid-afternoon we had enough time left to cover the short remaining distance into Poland itself and aimed for the small seaside town of Międzyzdroje, on the Baltic sea coast. The last section of “motorway”, through what used to be communist East Germany, consisted of much poorer quality tarmac, concrete blocks and potholes. At last it began to feel as if we were getting somewhere new and unfamiliar. For a little while I had already been pondering how strange it was to be driving so freely through what used to be the old DDR, behind what was once the Iron Curtain. Not that you could notice from where we were sat, zooming along the motorway. But past Berlin the roads got smaller and worse and here was a little reminder of what this country’s crumbling infrastructure must once have been like. We carried on to the Polish border, which we crossed with hardly any formalities. The German and Polish border guards sat next to each other in the same office and we were waved on with a schon gut and then we were in Country 22, counting the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Germany as four more on our world trip).

Almost immediately the whole environment changed. What little traffic there was drove very slowly, sticking to the speed limits – 50km/h, up to 70, back to 50, etc. Lots of trees on either side of the road. We seemed to be driving through one large forest which was only broken by some small villages when we passed through them. The villages reminded me of the poorer parts of Belgium: not too tidy, bits of paint missing, and some really looked worse for wear, although mostly they just looked less well built than the solid and tidy German houses we drove past yesterday and today. Driving through the forested stretches we saw many people selling berries along the roadside, sat with a few jars of blueberries they had presumably gathered from the surrounding forests. They just sit by the side of the road, some on little stools, waiting for cars to stop. Lots of little strawberry stalls too.

We made a stop at a Polish service station of sorts, a simple cabin with a snack bar and a Polish barbecue on the go. It smelled great but the meat looked like it had been there for quite a long time. Without being asked, two boys cleaned Eddie’s windows while we were sat on the patio – they could do with it anyway so that was fine, but a little trick we’ll have to watch out for. The only reason for stopping was to “make contact” with the country before just whizzing straight through it in our car. We couldn’t make out a word of Polish but got by with German and English for now. We’ll have to look up the essentials for “hello” and “thank you”. We carried on driving, heading north, past Szczecin (quite easy to pronounce once you get the knack of the fearsome “szcz” combination – it’s the same as the “shch” in pushchair). On quiet small roads all the way to the island of Wolin, on the Baltic Sea coast, right up against the border with Germany, although to us it felt, after several hours of driving, as if we had gone deep into the country. We missed a turn-off and ended at the other end of the island, where a local, “Polischer student”, pointed us in the right direction, after having tried to offer us a guesthouse and a window-clean.

Międzyzdroje itself was a small town with a laid-back atmosphere. At first it felt more Mediterranean than Germanic, with a slightly chaotic feel. There was no real town “centre”, as in a market square. We wiggled around and around through the leafy streets, past lots of stalls with barbecues and kebabs, pizzas and ice-cream (“lody”) and back round to try our luck at the large Marina hotel. It looked welcoming but was full. The receptionist suggested the Aurora hotel instead, by the seafront and pier, and called on our behalf. We drove there, parked Eddie behind the hotel and checked in, and got a nice room with a sea view, overlooking the square and pier below us. There was a small pier in front, people strolling about on an evening paseo along the tree-lined promenade. Lots of stalls, selling ice cream (“lody”), pizzas, kebabs.

We went for a walk around, an early evening stroll, and up and down the pier, seeing the same pair of girls selling single roses – I took a picture of them but didn’t have change to buy a flower from them for Ness. It was still bright daylight, the late summer evenings of northern latitudes. Music was playing from various quarters, an accordion player somewhere, thump thump disco-beat synthesisers elsewhere, all mixing together in a seaside cacophony, but still managing to stay on the background. Families and children were driving around in pedalos, reminding me of the Belgian seaside “from when I was little”. Kids with sticks of candyfloss, or with soft ice-cream piled high in a vertical twirl, teenagers holding hands, and older people ambling slowly along. Stalls with Polish barbecues, metal rotating skewers packed with slices of pork, pork fat and onions, with a lovely smoky smell coming from the coal and wood. We had a beer and some meat, a blutwurst, rather like “zwarte pensen”, from one of the stalls and sat under the umbrellas. A two-piece band played under a small cover, with a tiny bit of space as a dance floor, which was immediately filled with two couples twirling each other round and round to the cheesy tunes. Super atmosphere, priceless. Afterwards we had waffles from a stall in front of the hotel and finished with a drink at one of the small cafés inside the covered section at the start of the pier. The sky looked beautiful with varied colours and little clouds, a sky “in which something is happening” is how I tried to describe it. Back to our cosy room on the fourth floor. It was rather noisy. By now the clubs and dancings had fired up their speakers and the sound carried straight into our room until the early hours.

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The pier at Międzyzdroje

Slept pretty well despite the noise. It was bright daylight very early, well before 6am. Outside the Baltic Sea looked calm and fresh. I could not see a shoreline opposite, just a curving coast along our side but somehow it felt (and is) more like a gigantic lake than an open sea. At breakfast there was herring. A large but cosy breakfast room, exactly the sort of thing you would expect at a smart, without being “chic”, seaside place.

Our Rough Guide describes various marked trails as options for walks. We were much in need of some movement and exercise, feeling fat and overweight, and after consulting the board by the pier/square, we decided to follow the red trail.

We set off along the coast, heading east, and along the promenade/street which at first went through town, past more shops and hotels and apartments. Already there were plenty of people out strolling. Then we reached the forest and entered a lovely fresh green forest which stretched across the tall firm dunes to the east of town. The path climbed up as the dunes got steeper. To our left we had a nice view of the Baltic Sea through the trees, the beach below us. I saw earlier that the beach was already getting quite busy with families and day-trippers. Inside the forest it was pleasant, cool but not so cool as to keep the fleeces on, shady and with birds twittering. I’m glad we have recaptured the “magic” of our world trip – it has been a bit of an odd “inbetween” month really. The path went up and up and slowly bent away from the coast, and downhill after a while. We reached the main road which we had to follow for a short distance before reaching the bison reserve.

It became clear that we had been following the wrong trail, or somewhere missed a turning to stay on the red trail, but it didn’t matter and instead we continued to follow this trail into the forest and do zubrow, “to the bisons”. Not sure what I had expected, a hide or a large enclosure? We found a little zoo of sorts, consisting of wooden enclosures among the trees. We paid 5 zloty each and saw the bisons, sitting around, as well as some deer, eagles and long-snouted boars. The panels were all in Polish and lost on us but I did manage to understand that there are bison in the larger forest too, the Wolinski National Park.

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Music, maestro!

We walked into town through the forest and headed for one of the cafés on a small triangular plaza between blocks of apartments/holiday flats, and had some lunch – herring again! It somehow felt very Mediterranean. Lots of plastic buckets and spades, an accordion player in the background. With our two words of Polish combined with German and English we got along quite well, for now. There are road works in the town and you could really feel that the whole place has been transformed. We both wondered what it would have been like “before”, without the bars and shops and cafés. We returned to the seafront. It was well into the afternoon by now and we were feeling rather snoozy and Ness had dodgy guts, so we made a beeline back to the hotel where we had some down time and a kip, much needed.

It was almost 7pm by the time we perked up again and went out. First we went for a drink on the terrace of the hotel, two small beers while watched the Poles at their “paseo”. The same relaxed atmosphere, just a bit quieter today. There was a choir festival or something and the choir people were around town. After the drinks we crossed the green square in front of the hotel and I had a kebab for dinner while Ness abstained. After that snack we wandered down onto the beach and plonked on the beach a short walked away from the small pier. Off to the right (east) of the pier they were setting up a big campfire and people were gathering on the beach.

We picked a little spot to the left of the pier and watched the sun set and the sky turning a glorious spectrum of colours, from deep red over the horizon through to turquoise and blue, with the edges of the clouds being lit up by the sun as it set. A lovely scene, with the waters of the Baltic lapping gently, and the sky and sun giving us a great show. We waited until the sun had set and then wandered back to the pier and strolled up and down, bumping into the girls selling flowers again and I bought Ness a rose, as intended yesterday. After a drink or two at one of the bars on the pier we returned to the hotel. It was noticeably quieter tonight, except for the choir-singers who had gathered on the beach by the large camp fire and were singing snatches of songs, including “Kalinka”, a little uncoordinated perhaps but there seemed to be a good jovial atmosphere.

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Red-brick towers of rebuilt old Gdańsk

From our fourth floor room we had a great view over the Baltic in the morning. A gloriously sunny summer day, with pleasantly warm weather. After breakfast in the traditional breakfast room we packed and got ourselves ready. Below us a man was mowing the lawn with his motorised lawn mower, driving elaborate patterns back and forth.

We followed the hotel receptionist’s advice and took the small route 102 along the coast. This took us through mile after mile of lovely green fresh proper forest. There were only a few other cars on the road and from time to time we passed through a small village before re-entering the forest again. It went like this for a long time and progress was rather slow as overtaking was difficult and the roads aren’t all that good, at least not all of the time. We passed some traditional houses, of brick and with the top halves of broad wooden planks, or just small little houses. Some have had TLC and a lick of bright paint, others had crumbling plasterwork and exposed brickwork underneath. It was a very gentle, peaceful rural part of the country and I think most people here were either locals living as they have always done and a good number of Poles with summer homes. After lots and lots of forest and with glimpses of the Baltic just off to our left, we got to more open countryside, green fields with waving grass, black and white “Friesian” cows in the fields, and still the Baltic to our left. In the forested parts, between adjacent villages, we saw more solitary berry or honey vendors, sat along the road with four or five jars of blueberries or trays of cherries or strawberries. Later we reached some small towns, and then larger ones as we got closer to Gdańsk. Places like Slupsk, nothing to report really, just ordinary roads, a few roundabouts or a system of signs guiding us into, through and out of the town. Blocks of apartments, which don’t look grim as such, with little splashes of colour, although I imagine these would have been the typical communist living arrangements. Now they’re just blocks of accommodation. The roads got bigger and with more traffic and our progress sped up as we got closer to Gdańsk.

We had hoped to get to tourist information before 4pm but a call confirmed they were actually open until 5pm. In the semi-busy traffic we ended up going round and round, being guided through a one-way system that just wouldn’t let us go where we wanted to. In the process we actually got to see a fair deal of the centre of Gdańsk, with pretty red-brick towers and churches, and Dutch-looking merchant houses, as well as fairly ordinary blocks of apartments.

The atmosphere is completely different from anything we had imagined. There was nothing grey or drab or even industrial about this place, and it felt a lot like Amsterdam, architecturally, but more laid-back. Tourist information was on an unlikely street away from the very centre and they didn’t come up with the kind of hotel we were after, only an out of town place for 80 zloty (£13) so we suspected it would be just a room in someone’s apartment. Instead we did our own round and eventually found a good value centrally located hotel at the Dom Muzycka, set up for tour groups who just want a clean decent room. It’s housed in a part of the old Music Academy building, a grand yellow-brick affair consisting of several wings around a central courtyard/parking area. We got a nice big bright high-ceilinged room, a super find!

With two full days her in Gdańsk we weren’t in a hurry to go out into town this evening and opted to have dinner in the hotel restaurant after having a drink in the bar/restaurant. We booked a table for 8pm and spent some time taking care of chores such as washing clothes, and before we knew it it was time for dinner. There were several other tables of diners, one German tour group and several Poles in couples, and there was a good atmosphere in the restaurant, and the food was excellent too, beetroot soup with dumplings and slices of nice fatty pork shank, and for Ness the hearty typical Polish zurek soup, and we washed it down with Sobieski sweet bitter, a delicious vodka-based (?) Polish schnapps. The middle-aged man who seems to be the head waiter was taking his role very seriously and we had to keep a straight face as he went through the motions of presenting and then serving the wine. As “bus days” go, this was a good way of seeing a bit of the country while travelling. I was just amazed how slow our progress was on these small roads.

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Gdańsk's old town
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Solidarność monument
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Chunk of the wall that once divided East and West Europe

Today was a typical city break day of wandering around the city and doing some very pleasant sightseeing. We started by walking the short distance into the centre of Gdańsk’s old town. The weather was lovely and warm, sandal weather, yet it still managed to feel clean and fresh. Oh, I forgot to mention the building work that woke us so early in the morning. The hotel receptionist had told us they wouldn’t really start before 10am but by 7am the stonecutters and drills were already fired up. Anyway, we walked into town, past/along/across a canal with some pleasure yachts moored, and with lovely views of the many spires and tall cathedral towers, and the remains of old brick buildings in the foreground, a section that hasn’t been restored yet.

We learned throughout the day how Gdańsk was rebuilt, reconstructed and restored following WWII when both the Allies and the Soviets took it in turns to bomb the place and effectively reduce it to rubble. Hard to believe now as the town centre was full of lovely “old” buildings, very much like Amsterdam.

First we visited the Maritime Museum, housed in three large former storehouses by the main canal. They resembled large barns. Inside there were many rooms with interesting displays covering Gdańsk and Poland’s history, its centre as a shipbuilding centre, military history as Poland changed over the centuries, etc. In each room you could pick up a little booklet with laminated pages containing a map of the exhibits and translations of the captions, handy as the ones in the display cases were only in Polish. I wasn’t too bothered to read everything in detail and was quite happy just reading the odd bit here and there, happy to let if flow over me in general impressions of Polish and Gdańsk history.

Afterwards Ness went to have a look around the SS Soldek, a ship moored along the quay while I just had a coffee and watched the goings-on along the canal. Across the water was the famous medieval crane (also partly, or possible even wholly, rebuilt though you wouldn’t know it), and a tiny ferry was going back and forth across the canal, with Polish playing over the loudspeakers, something suitably atmospheric and nautical, sounding like an accordeon player or a slow ferryman’s song. We took the little ferry across and next went up inside the crane. This used to be driven by manpower, by men walking inside the big wheels inside the crane, hoisting weights of up to 2,000kg.

We skipped the final wing of the Maritime Museum, which was all about various types of boats, and instead strolled along the canal and then along the royal route, Gdańsk’s premier touristic street. This is a wide avenue lined with some magnificent “old” buildings in elaborate Mannerist styles, including an imposing brick town hall with tall turrets, a richly decorated house next to it, the Neptune fountain, and lots more, and of course many ambling tourists. We got the impression there was a cruise ship in town and I did hear that typical American retired person’s drawl (“Marty, I’m jes’ goin’ over here”, etc.) We both kept saying how this was so very different from our vague expectations. Lots of streets artists too, dressed up in all kinds of costumes.

We walked to the other big gate at the other end of the royal route and meandered around a little through the streets of the old town and then went for a drink and a snack at a pleasant little café on one of the less busy streets parallel to the royal route, a tasty beer and pierogi, Polish dumplings. Ness still had dodgy guts and passed on it.

From here we made our way through the central streets, past some more pretty streets, churches and squares, the old mill (a large brick building with a large tall red-tiled roof), and towards the Solidarność museum and monument to the fallen shipyard workers. It was in a quieter part of town, a now residential, former industrial area, and it struck me how few people there were coming or going the same way. Surely this was the main reason for coming to Gdańsk I had thought, to come and see and learn about where the collapse of communism in Europe had all begun. We found the small museum, housed in a small brick building that had previously formed part of the shipyards. Some way behind it we could still see cranes and other shipyard buildings. I think the shipyard might still be open, even though they are totally unprofitable, but it would be political suicide to attempt to close them down. Outside the museum there were large black and white photographs on large rust-coloured metal plates dotted along the path, showing images of the shipyard workers on strike.

It really hit home somehow, as I recalled seeing images like these on the news when was a child, and how it was a part of the history of “my” Europe. (Another thought was how for at least some of those involved, caught up in the sequence of events, there must have been really no option but to go along with the momentum, whether they wanted to or not, how the movement acquired a will of its own.)

Inside the museum was very well presented, with a realistic mock shop from the 1970’s/80’s, as a reminder to people of what things used to be like – a few bottles, two jars of gherkins, a few loaves of bread, was all that was to be found on the empty shelves, and it all looked so basic and bare. There were video clips, slideshows, radio broadcasts and various documents and related bits, like the wooden panels with the “21 Demands”, and at the end the hall was set up just how it had looked during the days of the strike and when finally an agreement was signed to permit free trade unions (not originally one of the demands of the strikers, but the one that came to be at the centre of the dispute). Also lots of historical context on what had preceded: uprisings in other parts of Eastern Europe, and the 1970’s crackdown on a strike, which could be said to have been the real turning point, as well as what happened subsequently – the imposition of martial law and the end of the sixteen months of “freedom” in 1981, and later the tumultuous events of 1989 when Eastern Europe was like a house of cards as one country after another changed.

Yes, it did touch me to realise the changes that had happened and how it had started here. I’m still amazed that there weren’t more visitors. They said they had had 300 earlier in the day – didn’t seem like a lot. I stubbed my big toe when I was trying to take an artsy picture of the tall monument on the square outside (over the next months it turned all sorts of colours!) Then we walked back into the old town and stopped for a few drinks and a plate of herring at a nice café by the mill, a pleasant courtyard with weeping willows, surrounded by a low hedge so you could look across, a super spot for a few games of gin rummy. A few LP’ers were there too.

We continued back to the area around the royal route and found a nice bistro on the same street as before, and had a tasty meal in the warmly decorated tall room, and thankfully no hordes of tourists. In fact, even though it was only about 8pm the city felt very quiet and empty, except for the ul. Durga, the royal route, where there were still some tourists. Locals obviously go somewhere else in the evening. At the hotel we had a final Sobieski sweet bitter, while mozzies feasted on us, and then hit the sack not too late. A super day in Gdańsk!

Today we made a day trip to Malbork, the former home and seat of the Teutonic Knights. Now there’s a name that speaks to your imagination, although I can’t say I had ever heard before of them, maybe just a fleeting reference somewhere. Anyway, it was another indication that Poland’s history is quite different from the western European one I regard as my own, yet also still quite similar, not so radically different as the American, Asian and African cultural framework we have travelled in until now).

The day started beautifully again, with clear bright blue skies, all the more intensely so when seen through the polarising lenses my sunglasses, and with lovely warm sunshine, and of course the tasty bread at breakfast! No noise from the builders either this morning. We collected Eddie from the car park next door and made a note to ourselves not to park under so many trees in future as he’s now getting quite dirty. A parking attendant was sat in a raised little cabin, supervising, and there was something very 70’s about the scene. It was straightforward to make our way out of Gdańsk and onto the main road, heading south-east.

Countryside and scenery were unspectacular, just a decent road, flat green landscape, of the sort you might have found in Holland no so long ago – lines of trees here and there, along the road or along the edge of a field. Little villages and groups of houses dotted here and there, cows in some fields, and along the road all the usual stuff, garages, shops and small companies, houses, etc. All part of the rapid transformation of Poland over the last ten to fifteen years, though there’s nothing hurried or slapdash or brand-spanking new about it. All I could think of to describe it was “normal”, “ordinary”. Well, until we turned off the main road and for a short distance were driving on a very broad tree-lined cobbled road. The odd thing was that it struck me as being so … odd. Again, not that long ago you would have come across many of these kinds of roads in Holland and Belgium, but now they have all been replaced by smooth tarmac.

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Enjoying the sunshine at Malbork
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On the phone to the Grand Master

We reached the small village of Malbork around eleven o’clock and followed the signs through the “ordinary” part of the village to a car park consisting of grounds just outside the castle. We had already had a few glimpses of Malbork as we crossed a broad slow river approaching the town, and could see how the imposing red-brick buildings dominated the sky, commanding the entire surrounding countryside. We walked along the tree-lined streets and up to the castle, which now begun to look even more …erm… big, solid.

Three colours totally dominated the scenery, intensely so: the green of the trees, in full summer bloom, the clear blue sky, and the red bricks and roof tiles, making a perfect trio of primary colours. More tourists, of course, mostly Polish and German. We were just on time for the guided visit in English, with a small group of about a dozen or so. The guide was a small blonde Slavic girl with a nervous timbre in her voice, and she took us round on a tour of three hours. Afterwards it still felt as if we had only seen a small part of the whole!

First we got a bit of history about the Teutonic Knights, as a monastic order of knight-monks, or monk-knights, which had its origins in the crusades, the Holy Land, and all that, but they somehow ended up here – I believe the King of Hungary had invited them to his lands but he either had changed his mind or felt the Teutonic Knights were getting too powerful, and they ended up here in northern Poland, their “mission” to christianise the pagan lands, Lithuania, and so on. All in all a fascinating bit of medieval history. The main period was around 1300-1400. As for the castle, this consisted of three parts: the “lower”, now gone, the “middle”, where we started our tour, and the “higher”, where the Grandmaster lived and which was the main seat. Pictures should explain the visual impact better than my scribblings! We toured through a succession of chamber, corridors, courtyards, some fully restored and redecorated, other, such as the chapel/church, consisting of bare brick, with three “generations” of brick and work clearly visible.

During the 1920’s, or rather, before WWII, over a period of 40 years a man called Conrad Steinbrecht worked to restore large sections of the castle, which had obviously suffered over the years. Then WWII happened and some pictures showed the remains of the castle, a ruin, in 1946. During the 1960’s and 1970’s it was restored again. It was incredible to see how fully it had been restored – not a building seems incomplete, it all looked intact and as if it had always been here. More restoration work has been done in the 1990’s and is still ongoing. At the end of the tour we climbed the tall main tower, for a separate entrance fee, which was certainly worth it for the commanding views from the top, overlooking the flat agricultural countryside. Below us was the rest of the small town of Malbork, many medium-sized apartment blocks, not quite so picturesque. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the armoury, with an excellent collection of helmets, weapons, etc., and the coin collection, in dim lighting, a stunning collection of medieval silver and gold coins, dukats, and up to massive intricate gold coins which must have been worth a fortune in their day (and more now!), and the amber gallery, with a wide range of jewellery containing big pieces of yellow and orange amber, and pieces with “organic inclusions” (think Jurassic Park), and the two guys dressed up as Teutonic Knights in the massive main square of the middle castle.

After the tour we went for a drink and an ice cream at a little village stand on a square in front of the castle. Here there was still the sleepy village atmosphere. On the whole, quite a few visitors but hardly any English (well, none in fact, only a couple of non-Polish/German speakers on the tour, of indeterminate origin). We returned to Gdańsk, by the same route through the beautiful countryside, green and a little sleepy, and closer to Gdańsk the “ordinary” roadsides. On the way we stopped at a car wash and gave Eddie a much-needed clean. Back at the hotel, the former music academy, we spent a bit of time writing diaries and chilling out.

In the evening we walked into the centre of town, looking for a cheap nosh place and ended up back on the main street, ul. Długa, at a touristic café, although the only tourists here seemed to be young Poles, and we had a pretty crappy plate of shwarma, but it did the trick. I remember four or five police officers queuing up at the take-away counter for their kebabs. Pleasant laid-back atmosphere again, “terrace weather” as we’d say in Dutch. After the meal we went for a drink or two at a bar back across the river. We were almost the only customers they had for the entire time we were sat there, except for a snogging couple on one side and two guys who hardly touched their beers. A few beers and vodkas later we strolled back to Dom Muzycka, feeling very relaxed indeed.

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Yachts along the waterfront
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A couple of złotos to go please

By all accounts today was another “bus day” but we drove through such beautiful scenery and ended up in another lovely little part of Poland at the end of the day. It made the travel and drive a real pleasure, even if it was long and unchanging. First we followed the same route back down to Malbork, a drive of a good hour or so. The same scenery as yesterday but I was looking a little more keenly now and kept thinking “if only I could stop and take a picture”, as I have done on so many occasions when we’ve been on the road. Of course nothing should be easier than to stop. After all, we’re in our own car, on relatively quiet roads, but there’s the impetus, the momentum that carries you forward and many sights just flash by. Things I wish we had stopped for include the cherry vendor on the broad cobbled road to Malbork, with his simple stand full of the yellow-red cherries, and the views of round bales of yellow hay lying on the freshly mown green fields, and the fields of waving grains, sometimes with a profusion of blue flowers (cornflowers?) Oh, and the most characteristic sight of all, the occasional stork nests, with two or three tall typical storks, with their orange-red long beaks, black and white feathers, stood on tall red-brick chimneys or purpose-built poles, usually at the older farms.

We re-entered “ordinary” country for a while – bigger roads, more built-up, petrol stations and the like, but later in the afternoon the landscape changed again. Whereas before it been totally flat, like Holland, it now gradually became a little hilly, well, there were some curves to the landscape at least, and the hilly bits became more forested. Before it had been almost exclusively fields, with rows of trees separating plots or lining canals. Now it became thickly forested all around us. In other parts we drove along idyllic country lanes (even though this was the main road from this part of the country to Warsaw), with fields on either side, a church spire and accompanying villages here and there, and lined on both sides by thick sturdy green trees that looked as if they had been there forever. It went on like this, and we swapped driving a few times and kept an eye on our average speed. Since leaving Gdańsk it had started to climb from just over 20mph to a whopping 40mph!

By mid afternoon we reached the Mazurian lakes district and started to see some holiday homes and adverts for hotels. We reached the little town of Mikołajki, which seemed to be the Mazurian equivalent of Windermere, in that it is the principal town of the area. As soon as we reached it, it felt welcoming, with a great laid-back summer holiday atmosphere. We found a little hotel along the lake, a good find as it was only a short walk along the lake into the town centre and we managed to get a room with a view on the lake and a balcony for only zl.192 (£34), excellent. We’re sharing the hotel with a German tour group, and were lucky to get such a good deal.

After settling in, we went for a walk along the lake shore and into town. It was pleasantly hot and sunny, with only the tiniest bit of wind, but just enough to give a bit of relief from the heat. All along the lake shore there were little yachts, 25-30 footers at most, moored bow-first along the shore, with an anchor laid out behind, and there were boats out on the lake itself. On our right, as we walked, there were the back gardens of the houses along the lake (so there was: little pavement and path, then a fence and the back gardens which rose up and at the top the main house). Away from the town centre the back gardens were filled with barns and sheds, with tomatoes and other plants, with chickens and dogs. As we got closer to the centre there were some home-made bars, sheds and decking and benches plonked into the back garden, an informal “hungry hill”, and a perfect spot for a cold beer! The bars got bigger and more formal, i.e. proper bars, and there were more yachts and pontoons as we walked further. It was the back-end of the day and many boats were coming in to moor up for the night. Some were already cleaning and sorting out their boats, others already had drinks or a barbie on the go on the quayside. [... p24] Despite not having a go ourselves, it was nice to see all the activity all around us, the boats looking tidy and colourful, the young yachties playing around. Most of the boats are charters and it doesn’t look like you need much experience around here – no tides, calm winds, little traffic. We picked up a corn on the cob to munch, and further on picked a café-restaurant for a meal, rather disappointing fish.

Mikołajki is a real little find, for us that is – the Poles certainly know about it! A relaxed summer holiday spot, at the centre of a whole district full of little glacial lakes, many of which are interconnected. After the meal we strolled back to our hotel. Even though it was late, it was still relatively light, and the sky was a graduation of blues and with deep dark browns and reds above the horizon. It was in fact still so light that there were hardly any stars visible. Back at the hotel we had a coffee and a vodka on the main terrace, where the group of older (East?) Germans were still busily talking. I could make out that one guys seemed to be the main focus, but whether it was his party or he was merely a guide I couldn’t make out. Around us the conversations were about “jaah, my son-in-law …”, “I used to do this-or-that but not now...”, recollections of being at school (a long time ago!), a lot of reminiscing and digging up memories rather than living here and now. Still, the atmosphere was jovial and friendly.