|Wolfsschanze, the Wolf's Lair, Hitler's eerie bunkers|
We slept very well in our cosy room at the inn. It seems we were the only guests. Only one table had been set for breakfast, and we were attended by a young man who was a relative, either son or nephew, couldn’t work out, of the owner, and who was studying in Gdańsk. The inn had that German, central European “woodland” atmosphere, with lots of wood, panels and carvings, and lace and woven materials. You could just imagine a convivial meal here, especially around the large square table for eight placed in the centre of room.
We headed out of Kętrzyn, on the small road north-east, through fields of grain and some settlements consisting of a couple of farmhouses, with stork nests and old wooden farm buildings, and then into the woodlands.
After a short drive we reached the Wolf’s Lair, Wolfsschanze, in the middle of the forest. There was a small touristic setup, dating back to earlier, pre-EU, times. Guides were on offer, offering their services, but we played the “we’re English” card (the guides only spoke Polish or German) as we preferred to go round by ourselves. With the aid of a picture I took of the big map on a board at the start, by the car park – which attracted some grumbling from some old folk sat around. Lots of flies in the air, more than anywhere else I can recall.
The whole thing is targeted at Polish and German tourists, although there were explanations in English too. So, we did our own tour, wandering through the forest along the paths, with the massive old bunkers appearing at various points. With the aid of the picture of the map we identified the various bunkers, all the Nazi big names, Göring, etc. and of course Hitler himself. There was also a lot of info about the famous failed bomb plot, with Colonel Von Stauffenberg as the main protagonist. Detailed plans showed who stood where, and where the briefcase was placed. Lots of old black & white pictures, including one of Hitler and Mussolini peering into the bunker after the assassination attempt, on the same (or next) day.
The presence of the flies made it difficult to just wander round in quiet. Instead we were hurried along, aware that the faster we walked, the more we sweated, and the more we attracted bugs with our sweat. If you ignored the flies it would have been quite a strange atmosphere, and if you had been here in, say, autumn or winter, it would have been very eerie no doubt. Was it just my over-active imagination, but I somehow felt that these bunkers were leading down to deep dark forbidden places, and in fact the flies even added to this sense of “evil” that hung about the place. Anyway, odd atmosphere and a bunch of massive lumps of concrete, ripped and broken apart, with twisted steel rods sticking out. We wandered round the area, took a look at the scale model that showed how it would have looked at its peak, in use. On our way out we started running into large groups of visitors, Polish, Germans, schoolkids. It was definitely a worthwhile sidetrip.
We picked up the road to Giżycko, and Ness did the long drive to the town of Augustów, heading for Lithuania, aka “Twenty-eight”. It was a beautiful drive through green rural Polish countryside, just cruising along and heading for border country. Outside the car it was still hot, 30°C plus, but we had the air-con on, or wind through the open windows, and just watched the green grain fields, the occasional stork nests, the wooden farm houses, the old orange Zuk vans that trundled along. Most of the traffic consists of second-hand German cars, Volkswagens and a lot of Audis, on their second lease of life in the east. Past Augustów we were in border country, pine trees but not much else. The road quality varied, from smooth new EU-funded tarmac on some stretches, to other bits which had not yet had the treatment or were deemed sufficient for traffic as long as you didn’t mind the odd bump or pothole.
We stopped for petrol on the Polish side. A pair of uncommunicative blank-looking Slavs, Tweedledeeski and Tweedledumski, at a smart Statoil station set among the pines. And then we reached the Lithuanian border, not so different from the Polish/German border, except this one was a little country road into the middle of nowhere (i.e. one of the main roads), the borderguards sat side by side in the same building, there was a feeling of some neglect and lack of purpose – borders in the EU are now rather artificial constructs. But at least there was a proper country sign proclaiming “Lietuva Respublika” and then we had officially entered our next country. The scenery didn’t look so different from that on the Polish side at first, but there was something markedly different – the roads were poor, I think that wasn’t so different maybe, but the countryside felt more traditionally rural, wooden farm houses, and the language was totally different and unintelligible.
Our first time in a former Soviet republic, another little “milestone” on our travels. What else? After the initial border country, which always feels a little odd and different, we drove through a (CAN’T DECIPHER WORD – SEE P.38) landscape. My imagination probably, but it felt as if there was a more Scandinavian atmosphere here (yes, rubbish – see later days). Anyway, we headed for the small town of Druskininkai, not too far into Lithuania, as a convenient base for a day or two in or near the national park in this region. The alternative was a tiny little village within the park itself. Rough Guide suggested there was very little by way of accommodation.
We had no idea that Druskininkai was actually a spa town until we got there. “Drus” was very different. Entering it, you hardly noticed there was a town here at all, just very wide roads and lots and lots of trees everywhere, with buildings set discreetly among them. Yes, there was a pretty red-brick church but this too was surrounded by trees. The town felt more like a park. A tidy landscaped lake was off to one side, with a tall fountain, a tall jet of water rather. A few cars trundled along, a few pedestrians strolled around, some with bath towels. On our way into town we drove through the wide avenues with pine trees and pulled up at a modern building with tourist info. Shut today – yesterday was a national public holiday in Lithuania and many places have made the “bridge” to the weekend, but luckily a man, caretaker?, turned up just when we were there and let us in so we could pick up some leaflets and he very helpfully dug out a guide to Druskininkai in English, listing all the hotels and facilities. Using this we drove around and tried several hotels, but after 4 or 5 had told us “sorry, full” we were about to give up and head on. The last one we tried was the rather pricey-looking Druskininkai hotel, a very smart modern block, with wood-effect cladding and lots of glass-encased balconies reflecting the woods in the …erm… glass. Very pleasantly surprised – yes, they had availability, and at €186 for a two-night all-inclusive package (1 x supper, 2 x breakfast, 2 x spa treatments per day, free internet, etc.) it was a good deal.
Not much later we were installed in our modern air-con large smart room, Eddie was safely parked in the car-park. This did feel very Scandinavian now, and the whole atmosphere of Drus was like this, green, laid-back, space and light and woods, but on our drive through in search of a hotel we had seen a little glimpse of what used to be here, and is now rapidly disappearing, the former Soviet spa resort, with wooden villas and guesthouses, now either being revamped in some cases, or still surrounded by fencing, and slowly left to crumble until a western investor snaps it up. With a bit of imagination you can picture the scene as Soviets would be here in groups on “doctors orders” (as long as you could wangle a sick note to be sent here for the cures), with an atmosphere of a regimented pleasure resort. Treatments and meals at set times, joint activities and no doubt music and dancing too. But now it’s just a spa resort – book into a hotel and spend a few days unwinding.
After dumping our stuff we went out for a walk around town, i.e. among the trees along the paths and wide pavements. Round the corner we found a supermarket and bought some water, and noticed “international” being spoken – a couple of young Aussies. Apparently there is an international orienteering championship taking place here, which explains, together with the public holiday, why the hotels are so full. But if the hotels are so full, where are all the people? Only a few can be seen out on the streets, so they must be elsewhere. Across the road we went for a drink and snack (herring!) at a guesthouse-cum-bar/café by a wide pedestrian avenue among the trees. The guesthouse is in a former wooden villa with a big veranda with tables, and a very Polish/Russian-looking family turned up to provide some couleur locale. At our hotel we went for a “Turkish bath”, which was just a steambath and sauna plus Jacuzzis. We shared it with a Lithuanian (?) couple and sweated it all out, then cooled down in the Jacuzzis, and afterwards felt totally relaxed. We took our free dinner at the hotel that evening, a very simple but tasty meal with a glass of bubbly and ice-cream, followed by a night-cap across the road at the terrace café. An excellent find.