***  BALTIC STATES 2011  -  WEEKS 1~2  ***
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THE BALTIC REPUBLICS 2011 - Journey out through Northern Germany and Poland:

What better place to begin our trip to the Baltic than at Lübeck, once the flag-ship port-city of the Hanseatic League whose trading empire ruled a pan-North European sphere of control across the Baltic from the 12~17th centuries. Lübeck's mercantile independence from the Church made it the wealthiest and most powerful of the 200 member cities of the Hanseatic League trading cartel through its monopolistic control of Baltic salt export. This mercantile wealth found expression in magnificent civic and ecclesiastical architecture still to be seen today despite damage from WW2 bombing raids. Our base for the visit to Lübeck was the welcoming Campingplatz Schönböcken in the city suburbs from where we caught the bus into the Altstadt (old town).

Click on 2 map regions for details of the Journey Out

The sturdy towers of the Holstentor city gateway constructed in 1470 today form an iconic symbol of Lübeck's medieval power, wealth and political confidence (Photo 1 - Lübeck's Holstentor medieval city gate). We spent a happy day admiring the restored medieval buildings such as the ornate 13th century Rathaus (town hall) with its lofty gabled façades of dark glossy brickwork (Photo 2 - Lübeck's Rathaus (town hall) and market place. We shopped for supper in the nearby market place against the backdrop of the Marienkirche's Gothic spires and flying buttresses and wandered the back lanes of the Altstadt peering into the tiny courtyards and mews of flower-lined cottages and alms houses hidden away in alleys behind the street fronts (Photo 3 - Cottages and alms houses of Lübeck's courtyards). The mid-20th century West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt was born in Lübeck, and the exhibition in the city's Willy Brandt Haus celebrates the statesman's life and achievements. Politically active from a young age in the Social Democratic movement, he was forced to flee Germany with the mid-1930s Nazi seizure of power, and sought political asylum in Scandinavia earning a living as a journalist. Returning to war-shattered Germany in 1946, he reported on the Nuremberg war crimes trials, and again took up politics in post-war democratic West Germany. From 1957~66, Brandt was mayor of West Berlin, responding to the building of the 1961 Berlin Wall with his 'Small Steps' cautious policy in an attempt to make life in the divided city tolerable. This experience served to develop his 'Ostpolitik' policy as West German Chancellor (1969~74) in thawing relations with the GDR and Eastern Bloc which won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. The exhibition is a worthy tribute to one of the great statesmen of the Cold War period.

Lübeck's medieval merchants built magnificent Gothic churches as an expression of their power and wealth and the panorama from the Petrikirche spire over the roof tops of the old town typifies this, the view dominated by the nearby Marienkirche and Rathaus. The monumental scale of the city's Gothic churches and medieval architecture still exude the political confidence that the Hanseatic League's trading power brought to the port-cities of the Baltic regions which we should visit over the next week.

Moving east along the Baltic coast of Germany, passing a sign marking the former West German/GDR border, we reached another of the former Hanseatic ports, Wismar which during the 13~15th centuries developed as a wealthy trading city. But the 30 Years War in 1648 brought conquest and 150 years of occupation by the Swedish Empire, a legacy of which is still to be seen today in the colourful moustachioed 'Swedish Heads' scattered through the old town, most likely figure heads of Swedish ships in origin. In one of the last RAF bombing raids of WW2 in April 1945, 2 of Wismar's huge brick Gothic churches were destroyed, leaving only the tower of the former St Mary's Church still standing. Since German re-unification in 1990, Wismar has been much restored and is now a popular tourist centre. The old cobbled Hansestadt market place still has its medieval water tower standing amid the stalls and is lined with elaborately gabled brick façades of burghers' houses (Photo 4 - Wismar's market with medieval burghers' houses). The massive 14th century gothic bulk of St Nikolai's Kirche survived wartime bombing intact and its sturdy brick columns stand as testament to Wismar's wealth and power from its Hanseatic heyday (Photo 5 - Gothic church of St Nikolai, Wismar). Boats selling smoked fish line the moorings of the Alter Hafen with its Baumhaus former toll house which once controlled access to the harbour (Photo 6 - Wismar's old harbour).

Leaving Wismar, we camped further along the misty grey Baltic coast, tucked safely behind the protective dyke as rainstorms persisted. Beyond the communist era apartment blocks of Rostock, another Hanseatic port but not a pretty sight, we crossed the elegant new suspension bridge to Rügen, Germany's largest island off its Baltic coast, to camp at Altfähr just across the sound. From here a ferry takes you back across to the small Hanseatic port of Stralsund. The distant silhouette of its Gothic churches gives a hint of the port's former wealth, second only to Lübeck as a member of the Hanseatic trading cartel. Dockside stalls sell delicious, not to be missed Baltic smoked fish and the cobbled Alter Markt is backed by the ensemble of Gothic Nikolai Kirche and the show-case Rathaus, its ornately pinnacled brick gable bristling with turrets and rosette perforations to let Baltic winds blow through (Photo 7 - Stralsund market-place and medieval Rathaus).

Summer weather was proving elusively spasmodic as we explored more of Rügen's Baltic coastline. The island has been a traditional German holiday venue since 19th century Romantics eulogised its natural beauty. Bismarck and the Kaisers relaxed here, and Hitler chose Prora on the north coast to build a monumental concrete resort accommodating 20,000, as part of the Nazi Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) movement in preparation for military expansion eastwards. Under the GDR, Eric Honecker and millions of East German workers took holidays on Rügen, and their caravanning successors still flock to the coastal resorts. We headed NW to sample the island's natural beauty in the Jasmund National Park, the woodland-covered peninsula which ends at the startlingly white chalk cliffs of the Stubenkammer. A 3 km footpath leads through delightful beechwoods to the highest point of the cliffs, the Königstuhl (King's Stool), a 350 feet high chalk buttress projecting from the line of cliffs (Photo 8 - Rügen's chalk cliff at Königstuhl). Not prepared to pay rip-off admission charges, we followed the cliff-top path to other high-point look-outs along the cliffs, with their sheer drop down to the grey waters of the Baltic. Wooden steps lead down the 300 feet to the shingle beach below the chalky cliffs. The NW corner of Rügen projects into the Baltic from inland lagoons, ending at the lighthouses of Kap Arkona and the isolated fishing village of Vitt with its thatched cottages clustering around a tiny harbour (Photo 9 - Fishing village of Vitt). We camped that night at the delightfully straightforward Camping Oase in Polchow village, with supper of local smoked fish and nothing but the sound of birdsong for company - sheer heaven.

Continuing eastwards, we paused at yet another of the former Hanseatic port-cities, Greifswald. The town did not have the wealth and grand edifices of the trading cartel's bigger members, but it did develop as an academic centre with one of North Germany's oldest universities founded in the 14th century. Its charming ambience was recorded by local artist Casper David Friedrich in the early 19th century, and the historic buildings and grid pattern of streets of its Altstadt survived WW2 relatively unscathed thanks to the local military commander surrendering the town to the Red Army in 1945. The town's market place filled with vegetable, flower and fish stalls is backed by the blood-red Rathaus and lined with brick gabled houses (Photo 10 - Gothic town houses in Greifswald market place). The university church of St Nikolai is now one of Greifwald's most ornate churches (Photo 11 - University church of St Nikolai at Greifswald). The nearby stubby-towered Marienkirche built in 1250 to celebrate Greifwald's Hanseatic membership was stripped over the centuries of its furnishings and now glories in elegant simplicity, the lightly painted vaulting decorated with subtly coloured motifs and lit by unadorned stained glass windows (see right). For us, Greifwald's Marienkirche was the most attractive Gothic church we had visited. At the town's fishing port of Wieck, 4 kms down at the outflow of the Ryek River, the dockside was lined with fish smokeries where we could buy more suppers of Baltic smoked fish. The port's working boats were moored along the river (Photo 12 - Riverside fishing harbour at Wieck) which was crossed by a wooden lifting bridge creating a beautiful setting (Photo 13 - Wooden lifting bridge at Wieck).

Continuing eastwards, we crossed the straits which separate the island of Usedom from the German mainland. The narrow, 50 km long island had been an aristocratic playground in the 19th century, and the GDR communist authorities had confiscated resort properties turning Usedom into a mass workers' holiday resort. Since re-unification, entrepreneurialism has reasserted itself and Usedom's miles of fine white sand beaches are again a magnet for mass tourism. But what happened here in the late 1930s and in WW2 gave us an entirely different reason for visiting a place whose holiday-making preoccupation would normally have repelled. The isolated western tip of Usedom was the location of Peenemünde, the German secret military rocket research station, set up in 1936 under Wernher von Braun to develop the liquid fuel A4 rocket. The Nazi's aggressive re-armament programme guaranteed limitless funding for rocket research to provide more powerful military ordnance. Von Braun's design team had to develop a large liquid fuel engine for the rocket's thrust, and supersonic aerodynamics and gyroscopic guidance systems to control stability in flight. After endless failures, the first successful launch of the A4 rocket took place at Peenemünde in October1942, the first ever breaching of the space barrier. Initial reports of rocket development at Peenemünde were rejected by the Allies as disinformation, but aerial reconnaissance photos of the site showing the presence of tube-like objects were finally interpreted as rockets. A massive 500 aircraft RAF attack caused devastation at Peenemünde and in 1943 production of the rockets was moved to an underground factory complex, Mittelbrau Dora, in the Hertz Mountains using concentration camp slave labour. With the 1943 defeats marking WW2's turning point, the continuing intensive RAF/USAAF bombing of German cities, and the 1944 D-Day landings, Hitler needed a 'wonder weapon' to restore German morale. In mid-1944, he ordered attacks by 'Vengeance Weapons (Vergeltungswaffen) against the cities of Western Europe and London. Initially V1 flying bombs launched from fixed 'ski ramps' along the channel coast attacked London then in September 1944 attacks by V2 rockets began from fixed launch sites then from mobile launch platforms. Some 20,000 V1s and 7,000 V2 rockets were launched. Their inaccuracy made them ineffective against precise military targets; they were used purely as vengeance terror weapons against areas of dense civilian population. The slower V1 flying bombs were vulnerable to counter-attacks, but there was no defence against the speed and trajectory of the V2 rockets which fell from an altitude of 110 kms at 4 times the speed of sound (3,500 kms/hour). The V2 rockets were powered by a mixture of liquid oxygen and alcohol with the temperature of the engine's combustion chamber reaching 2,500°C causing the long plume of exhaust flame. From launch, the rocket motor burnt for 65 seconds propelling the rocket to the boundary of space; after the engine's cut-out, the rocket continued in a free fall ballistic trajectory to reach its target range of 320 kms in 3 minutes. The 1 ton of explosive war head caused a 20m wide, 8 m deep crater. Despite attacks by V1s and V2s on London, Antwerp, Lille and Paris causing some 3,000 civilian deaths, their military impact was minimal given their cost and vast consumption of scarce materials; it was said that the V2 rocket killed more people in its production (20,000 slave labourers) than in offensive deployment. It was, exactly as its name implied, a 'Vengeance Weapon'.

Against this historical background, we set off from the campsite along the narrow lane through the forests to the site of the rocket test site of Peenemünde. The former power station which generated electricity for the complex now houses the Peenemünde Historical and Technical Museum. Standing in front of the building were reproductions of the V1 flying bomb and the terrifying V2 rocket (Photo 14 - V1 flying bomb and V2 rocket at Peenemünde). The museum's exhibits are spread over 3 floors of the former power station. One floor is relates the story of early rocket development in the 1930s and the WW2 period of successful launch, mass production of the rockets and devastating impact of the vengeance attacks on civilian population. Another floor continues the more fascinating post-war and Cold War period of the A4/V2 rocket's story, when the US and USSR hijacked stocks of rockets and components together with the German scientists and technicians (including von Braun himself) to develop their own competitive military rocket programmes leading to the arms race and space exploration. The 3rd floor celebrates the 50 years of space exploration since Yuri Gagarin's historic first space flight in 1961, rather disingenuously diverting attention from the test site's original purpose of developing vengeance weapons. Without doubt however the Peenemünde museum does relate the story of the unequivocal military purpose of German rocket development in frank and objective terms. The myth of von Braun as the enthusiastic but gullible scientist is debunked in equally frank terms: he was a committed Nazi, an opportunist guilty of war crimes, while at the same time a brilliantly creative design engineer. The exhibition deals equally frankly with the barbaric German exploitation of slave labour in rocket production factories. Post-war American cynical hypocrisy in illegally granting visas to former Nazi war criminals for use in the US' own rocket development programme, including von Braun himself is also given exposé. The Peenemünde museum presents a worthwhile exhibition with as much emphasis on the historical, political and moral implications of wartime and post-war rocket development as technical details. And for all the 1000s of holiday-makers invading the beaches of Usedom at Whit weekend, Peenemünde was almost deserted.

The Usedom road continues along the island's narrow spine to the tiny segment of Polish territory at the far eastern tip, but here there is only a pedestrian/cycle border-crossing; we had to loop south the long way round to where a bridge spans the narrow strip of the River Odra estuary separating Usedom island from 'mainland' Germany, to cross into Poland near the city of Szczecin (formerly German Stettin before the 1945 shifting of borders). Our base for the visit to Szczecin (pronounced Shetsin) was to be Camping Marina, where we were welcomed with wonderfully helpful hospitality. This is a superb campsite set in lovely parkland and gardens on the shores of the lake formed by the Odra estuary, with excellent facilities, a small bar-restaurant and free wi-fi covering the whole site. Like many Polish campsites, it has a homely campfire circle with plentiful supplies of chopped wood and encouragement to light an evening fire.

Szczecin is an unashamedly industrial city spread along the banks of the Odra with the cranes of its docklands showing its maritime and ship-building heritage. German colonists came to dominate the original Slavic settlement once the port-city joined the Hanseatic League in the 13th century, and it remained under Prussian/German control until the 1945 redrawing of Poland's borders. Post-communist market economy resulting in closure of shipyards and associated industries has brought serious economic plight and unemployment, leaving the city a bleak future with little opportunity for further restoration of the severe damage suffered in WW2. The bus and tram ride into the city centre presented a grim-grey image of Szczecin (Photo 15 - Trams trundle past Szczecin Cathedral). As we walked towards the old centre, we revelled in being back in Poland, renewing acquaintance from last year's visit with familiar words, signs and conventions. But somehow Szczecin lacked much of the charm of many Polish cities: some of the medieval show-case buildings had been restored after WW2 damage, but gaps between had either been left vacant and now used as car parks or filled with drab communist-era housing blocks. The old town is now predominantly residential with the city's commercial hub shifted westwards away from the river to blandly grey boulevards. We were left with the impression that, having restored some of the old buildings like the beautiful Gothic brick town hall or grandiose Castle of the Pomeranian Dukes, in the wake of the culture shock of transformation to Polish from German rule no one quite knew how to use the newly restored buildings. The panoramic view from the Castle' bell-tower showed Szczecin's mix of scattered historic buildings set amid grim-grey Germanic inheritance and its historic dockyards along the River Odra (Photo 16 - Szczecin rooftops and dockyards by the River Odra). The Cathedral of St Jakob, a massive Germanic Gothic brick structure badly damaged in 1945 was even more severely mauled by tasteless post-war over-restoration. By 3-00pm we were fast running out of features worth visiting in Szczecin, but tireless travellers as always, we pursued the least of the city's treasures before retiring for a much-needed beer by one of the decorously restored burghers' houses by the Stary Rynek (Photo 17 - Restored burghers' houses in Szcsecin old town). Back at Marina Camping that evening as dusk fell we lit another camp fire, and photographed a magnificent sunset across the still waters of the marina against the backdrop of dockyard cranes (Photo 18 - Sunset over Szczecin shipyards).

The following day we headed north to pick up again our journeying along the Baltic coast this time within Poland, and headed towards Świnoujście, the port-city occupying the tiny segment of Polish territory at the extreme eastern tip of Usedom and whose pronunciation left us severely tongue-tied (try Shveeno-oo-eesheh). The topography of the sandbank islands and estuaries along the Baltic coastline was equally bemusing. Świnoujście is accessed from the Polish mainland by a car-ferry across the wide Świna river-estuary and now functions as a ferry port with connections to Scandinavia; as we joined local traffic for the 5 minute ferry crossing to the city, signs incongruously pointed to Malmö and Copenhagen. We stayed the one night, just long enough to practice pronouncing the city's name and to say we had camped at this curiously sited western-most point of Poland on the Baltic coast.

The following morning we crossed back to what felt like the Polish 'mainland' but was in fact the neighbouring island of Wolin to visit the sedate little sea-side resort of Międzyzdroje (OK - try Mee-en-jee-zdroyeh) and treated ourselves to a flądra flat-fish and chips lunch at one of the stalls along the front (Photo 19 - Flądra and chips lunch on Polish Baltic coast), and to enjoy a part-day's walking along the sand-cliffs of the local National Park. Continuing our eastward Baltic journey, we crossed Wolin island's eastern channel to the Polish mainland proper or at least more Baltic sandbars, and camped that night at a delightful little straightforward campsite named appropriately Dla Cibie ('For You') at the coastal village of Ustronie Morske. Keeping as close to the coast as we could along poorly surfaced minor roads around sandbars and coastal lagoons, we continued our Baltic meanderings eastward to the old port of Ustka. Our quiet lunch down by the harbour was enlivened by an entertaining episode involving the Polish Naval Reserve's cutter Czajka (meaning Lapwing). Whatever the ratings were being instructed to achieve in manoeuvring their boat in the narrow dock was unclear, but it ended with the naval vessel swinging helplessly around and in danger of ramming the dockside with its prow (the pointed end) then with its stern (the blunt bit at the back). As the dignity of the Polish Navy was scuttled by this debacle with no one seemingly taking charge of events, the height of the comedy was yet to come: suddenly a pirate ship came sailing into port at full speed, swinging around the ailing naval vessel as if to fire broadside. Was this, we wondered a belated raid on Polish territory by the Kriegsmarine, or the Soviet navy in disguise making a sneak attack while NATO's guard was so obviously down? But having demonstrated to the hapless sailors how to execute a deft turn within the harbour, the pirates' tourist boat withdrew leaving us in stitches of laughter to finish our lunch. You simply could not plan such moments of high comedy.

We camped that night at the excellent Leśny Camping at Łeba, a small Baltic fishing port and resort we visited last year. From the campsite we walked into the town to keep an our long-promised appointment to buy more smoked fish from the dockside stalls for another tasty Baltic supper, and at 9-00 that evening, the stirringly patriotic Polish Hejnał bugle call was relayed over the town from the church tower.

Baltic weather was proving fickle in the extreme, and in driving rain the following day we fought our way through impatient traffic, miserably poor visibility and hopelessly obstructive roadworks to bypass Gdańsk which we had visited last year. Finally escaping the conurbation to continue across the flatlands of the Wisła river delta, we headed back out to the Baltic coast for the 20 mile long narrow Wisłana sandspit to camp at the isolated settlement of Piaski. This little campsite had been closed when we came here last September, but this year we were welcomed with delightful hospitality by the lady owner, and camped by the edge of the Wisłany Lagoon marshes where the frogs sang happily and wild roses scented the air. We settled into this peaceful little bit of heaven on earth, gazing out across the lagoon to the outline of Frombork cathedral on the misty horizon with herons swooping low over the water (Photo 20 - Breakfast at Piaski on Wiślana Sandspit). The Wisłana sandspit in fact stretches for another 20 miles beyond Piaski enclosing the lagoon, but is divided half way along its total length by the border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. After a day's break at Piaski, we walked along the 3 kms of track through pine forests to stand at the border fence separating EU/NATO territory from the Russian lands beyond. Such are the strained relations with Kaliningrad that the fence-line extends down the beach into the grey waters of the Baltic. A brisk wind raised white waves which rolled in oblivious to the wire fence which attempted to bar their course (Photo 21 - Border fence with Russia enclave of Kaliningrad on Wiślana Sandspit).

On our way out the following morning, we paused to buy flądra flat-fish fresh from fishermen unloading the morning catch from boats drawn up on the beach, as their womenfolk gutted the fish for market (Photo 22 - Wiślana fishing beach at Krynica Morska). To continue our journey eastwards, we now had to turn inland to bypass Russian Kaliningrad; the hassle and cost of obtaining visas to pass through was just too bothersome. Round through Elbląg we camped for a night at Frombork on the southern side of the Wisłany Lagoon, where the afternoon sun lit Copernicus' cathedral, and in the evening we cooked our supper of flądra bought on the beach that morning. We now had a 150 mile drive through the rural backwaters of NE Poland, through what before 1945 was German East Prussia and now formed the borderlands with Russian Kaliningrad. After a night's camp at Gołdap, we continued through the wooded borderlands of former East Prussia on Midsummer's Eve, 23 June which this year coincided with the Feast of Corpus Christi, a day of national holiday for Catholic Poland when religious processions are held in many places. In the village of Dubeninki traffic was halted as local people processed with hymn singing and banners behind their priest for the blessing of shrines decked with flowers and birch branches (Photo 23 - Corpus Christi Day procession at village of Dubeninki). The rolling countryside was so attractive and all the small villages had families of storks nesting on the power-poles (Photo 24 - Stork family nesting at Glówka).

For our final night in Poland, we camped at the delightfully straightforward U Haliny Camping set on a peninsula of Lake Wigry in the Wigry National Park. Tomorrow we should cross into Lithuania to say Laba diena as we begin our trip proper to the Baltic States after our relaxing and nostalgic journey through Poland. But that's a story for our next edition in 2 weeks time; join us then.

Next edition to be published in 2 weeks

Sheila and Paul

Published:  28 June 2011

 

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Music this week: Mikalojus Čiurlionis
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