Nothing helps you to get to know a country like turning up at 6am on an overnight bus, after getting barely any sleep. This was the case with Poland, for us. I naively thought that perhaps we might have a problem finding somewhere open for a coffee at the early hour, but no. All the bakery kiosks were open and all the buses had been running a full timetable since 4am! It was as busy at 6am in G’dansk as it would have been at 9am in any city in the UK…the Polish early starting and solid work ethic was in clear view and we were glad of it…for the caffeine hit at least!
The northern port city of G’dansk was a sort of mistake on our itinerary. It was easier to get an overnight bus to there than attempt to get to our original destination in one go, but it proved to be a great stop. We stayed in a fabulous hostel in the suburbs of the city, Mama and Papa Hostel, where mama really calls herself mama and papa really calls himself papa! They were a fount of information and with a comfy bed and a huge complimentary breakfast we were sold….oh and did I mention they had a cat? Perfect hostel (for Ella anyway!)
G’dansk also proved to have its own share of delights to interest the eager tourists. Though very badly damaged during WWII the old town of the city was rebuilt to an original medieval layout and style, meaning tourists can wander the streets, looking up at the painted buildings and perhaps not realise they are a mere fifty years old. The city is centred around the water and on a sunny afternoon it was perfect to stroll along watching the street performers and balloon sellers attempting to lure in tourists to part with their money.
Our favourite site in the city, however, was the European Solidarity Museum, which charts the history of the fight for independence from the Soviet Union from the 1970s onwards, particularly focusing on the Solidarnosc movement. It’s probably one of the most interactive and creatively engaging museums I’ve been to in a long time and explains the three hours we were in there and the t-shirt Ryan bought afterwards! It inspiringly charts the uprising of ordinary people against the power of the Soviets and explains why Poland was the first country in the Eastern Block to declare independence. It’s not only a museum, but also a library and meeting place, with a roof top terrace and a cafe with amazing cakes. Trust us to sniff out the best place in town for baked goods right?!?
G’dansk is also a stones throw from one of the most important castles of the Baltic, Malbork. This was the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, whos castles we have been visiting all over the Baltic, and during the medieval period this one had been one of the most important centres in the region. Needless to say a tourist attraction with this amount of history attached had the requisite number of middle-aged tour groups and school groups traipsing around the grounds. But we managed to elbow our way through the crowds to explore the interior and marvel at the beauty of the high towers and walls sitting at the bend in the river.
Resisting the Temptation to stay longer and buy the knight’s swords, armour and the Maid Marion costumes on sale in the gift shop, we left G’dansk to see a little more of the Polish countryside. Perhaps not the most ‘happy’ of stops on our journey thus far, we boarded a crowded train to Ketrzyn, sharing our cabin with a group of excitable teenage Poles who spent the journey puffing on electric cigarettes and sniffing huge piles of snuff…Poland seems only behind in their choice of tobacco habits!But we weren’t visiting this picturesque corner of rural Poland for the countryside alone. We had come to stay in a former S.S bunker and look around the Wolf’s Liar, one of Hitler’s secret headquarters in the early 1940s and the site of the last assassination attempt on his life. You might think that this was a macabre stop on our itinerary but it has become a huge tourist attraction in recent years and we couldn’t resist the creepy experience of staying in former S.S quarters.
The location in former East Prussia was chosen for its marshes and forested landscape, in the hope of making the base even more difficult to spot and harder to attack. However, If the enemy did spot it there was the small issue of thousands of landmines around the complex to negociate … can’t say they weren’t careful. The Führer stayed at The Wolf’s Liar for over eight hundred days and his safety was guaranteed by his enormous reinforced concrete bunker, in some places up to ten metres thick! As the Soviets on the eastern front advanced Hitler retreated and the whole complex was destroyed by explosives from within and was allowed to deteriorate further until Poland gained independence.
Now the remains of the structures are being reincorporated into the forest which surrounds it. Moss and bushes grow between huge pieces of manmade concrete and metal, beautiful though with a frightening past. Walking through the grounds, looking up at the tree branches and listening to the bird song I couldn’t help but think of other ruined buildings we had seen on this journey, many of them being absorbed back into the jungle.
But lets admit it there was something creepily cool about standing somewhere Hitler once stood, climbing on the building he once lived in, where such historic events were planned out.
Leaving the countryside, we were off to the capital to learn a little more…