** POLAND 2010 - Weeks 1~2 **
2010 - Poznań, Wielkopolska and Lower Silesia:|
It was such a relief to see Dover's White Cliffs receding into the distance behind the ferry's wake, and to know that after so many uncertainties, our 2010 Polish trip was at last underway (Photo 1 - Departing Dover - the 2010 Polish trip is underway). We staged the 700 mile drive from Dunkerque with a stop at Arnhem in NE Holland to see for ourselves the setting of Operation Market Garden in September 1944 as portrayed in the film A Bridge too Far: 35,000 British, American and Polish troops were to be parachuted 60 miles deep into German occupied territory to seize key bridges across the Rhine, enabling a rapid advance of ground forces into the Ruhr industrial heartland, so ending WW2 by Christmas 1944. But this largest airborne operation in history, over-ambitious and over-hastily planned, was from the outset flawed by false assumptions, faulty equipment and failure to exploit intelligence from Enigma decodes and Dutch underground reports on German strength. The lightly armed paratroopers dropped to face 2 German panzer divisions; only a small force under Col John Frost (Anthony Hopkins in the film) reached and managed to hold the crucial Arnhem bridge for 9 long days before finally overwhelmed by German armour. Of the 10,000 British and Polish parachute forces dropped at Arnhem, just 2,500 managed to escape; over 1,500 were killed and the remainder captured or wounded.
From Camping Warnborn in the city outskirts, we caught the bus into Arnhem; it was an uncanny sensation to walk across Arnhem bridge (rebuilt after the war and now named in honour of Col John Frost) where the parachutists held out against German tanks (Photo 2 - Arnhem, a bridge too far). The Church of St Eusebius, destroyed in the aftermath of the battle and now rebuilt, contains a moving memorial in the form of tiny figures seeming to parachute from the chapel's lofty Gothic vaulting. It was pleasing also to see that in Holland, cycling is the usual mode of transport for young and old alike. Safety helmets are clearly unnecessary since motorists pay due regard, so unlike degenerate UK where the law seemingly allows motorists to kill cyclists with impunity. The Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek housed in the former British HQ where Gen Urquart (Sean Connery in the film) made his last stand, tells the story of the disastrously planned operation and the destructive impact on the Dutch civilians of Arnhem. Nearby is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery where over 1,700 British and Polish war dead from Arnhem are buried (Photo 3 - CWGC Cemetery at Arnhem). With Poland as this trip's venue, it was poignant to see the graves of so many young Polish men who had escaped from their occupied home country to give their lives at Arnhem fighting in the cause of Allied freedom.
Continuing our eastward journey, another 360 miles across the width of Germany past Osnabrück and Hannover brought us to Berlin for our 2nd staging halt, and a visit to the Federal German capital. City Campingplatz Berlin, some 10 kms out in the city suburbs near Potsdam, has a delightful setting on the tree-lined banks of the Telkow kanel, and the staff were hospitably helpful in providing details of public transport into Berlin by bus and train from Wannsee S-bahn station. The following day, we emerged from the underground station into the brightly sunlit Potsdamer Platz and its brash surroundings of glass-fronted sky-scrapers, to begin our day's visit to Berlin.
Just around the corner in Niederkirchner Straße, a 200m section of the Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer) has been preserved as a chilling memorial to the grim Cold War days of a divided city and country. In 1945, Berlin, isolated from West Germany 60 miles within Soviet-occupied East Germany, was divided into 4 zones of occupation - American, British, French and Soviet. Up to 1961, 1000s of East Germans crossed into West Berlin as an escape route to the West from the brutally oppressive Moscow-backed GDR regime. Then overnight in August 1961, the GDR military began erecting the Wall, hermetically sealing off West Berlin to prevent the haemorrhaging of its citizenry westwards to freedom. The political division of Germany and isolated Berlin was now reinforced by physical separation to prevent East Berliners voting with their feet on the brutal communist regime and its all-pervasive Stasi secret police. We stood aghast looking at this surviving section of the Wall, made up of remarkably slim 3.5m high reinforced concrete slabs and topped with tubular concrete coping to deny hand-hold to anyone attempting to scale the wall (Photo 4 - Remains of the Berlin Wall (1961~1989). There were over 5,000 successful escapes using various means between 1961 and the Wall's demolition at the downfall of communism in 1989, and tragically 1,300 fatalities shot by GDR border guards. It is simply astonishing with hindsight the costs and effort made by the GDR regime to contain its reluctant citizen-comrades; only the backing of the Kremlin kept Honecker in power for so long, and Gorbachev's emergence brought the inevitable fall of communism and the Wall's destruction.
The other symbol of East-West Cold War confrontation in Berlin, the former border-crossing of Checkpoint Charlie, has now degenerated into a sordid tourist trap where, ironically against the backdrop of a large McDonalds, gullible Americans can pay to be photographed. It was all too horrid to contemplate and we hurried past, heading for Berlin's landmark monument the Brandenburg gate at the head of the broad boulevard of Unter den Linden and topped with its bronze figure of Victory in her quadriga (Photo 5 - Brandenburg Gate). The triumphalist 1791 structure was not only the symbol of 19th century Prussian imperialism but also the epitome of a divided Berlin during the Cold War with the Wall built right across the Gate's western façade and the iconic warning-sign Actung - Sie verlassen jetzt West Berlin. Just beyond is the Reichstag Building, home of the Federal German parliament, the Bundestag. With the re-unification of Germany in 1991 and Berlin's reinstatement as Federal capital, the Reichstag was modernised, enhancing its 19th century grandiose exterior with an ultra-modern glazed dome. After queuing at the tediously officious security screening, we climbed the dome's walkway which spirals around the mirrored central core giving panoramic views across the Berlin city-scape. Footsore from a day's treading the Berlin streets, we retired for a beer at a bar-terrace on the River Spree embankment, before crossing to the vast glazed cathedral of the Hauptbahnhof station for our return train to Wannsee (Photo 6 Berlin Hauptbahnhof station).
The following morning, we crossed the Polish border at the River Oder, having passed on the autobahn trucks from every East European country - Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Russian Federation. We entered this trip's host country amid the chaos of new road construction cutting through the pine forests of Western Poland, courtesy of EU infrastructure grants. On our first evening camped at Poznań, principal city of Wielkopolska, we enjoyed some of Poland's fine beers; the following day, we followed this up with a visit to the Lech Brewery in Poznań. The huge green cylindrical storage tanks with the Lech emblem confirmed the location of the Lech Kompania Piwowarska (Brewery). We were welcomed by Robert from Belfast who now teaches English in Poznań (we imagined a generation of Poznań youngsters soon speaking English with a broad Ulster brogue) and works part time as a brewery guide. The tour followed the brewing process stages from the huge copper mash tuns (Photo 7 - Copper mash tuns at Lech Brewery, Poznań), through to the fermentation, filtration and maturation cellars and the noisy, fully automated bottling plant. The tour's highlight was a generous sampling of Lech Pils, a crisply hoppy and Pilsner style beer. click here for the Lech brewing process
We caught the tram into Poznań old centre, passing the island in the River Warta where the 10th century Slavic settlers had founded their fortified city and built the cathedral. The city flourished as a trading centre and bastion of Poland's western border, but after the 18th century Partition of Poland, Poznań came under Prussian control. After German defeat in WW1, Polish independence was recognised by the Allies but its borders were still to be defined. A Polish nationalist uprising in Poznań in 1918 finally forced out the German occupiers ensuring that Poznań and Wielkopolska were incorporated into the new Polish Republic. In 1956 Poznań was again in the forefront of struggle against foreign domination, this time Soviet: riots by industrial workers against food shortages were ruthlessly crushed by Soviet tanks and 76 protesters were killed, a foretaste of what was to happen later the same year when Hungary tried to assert its independence from Soviet control. Today Poznań is a vibrant university and commercial city of 500,000 inhabitants, symbolic of Poland's post-communist economic dynamism. We walked through to the old city's main square, Stary Rynek which is surrounded by impressive buildings wonderfully restored after WW2 damage and dominated by the city's Renaissance-Gothic town hall (Photo 8 - Stary Rynek (Old Market) at Poznań). On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the square was filled with Poznań citizens and university students socialising at the pavement cafés, and we joined them for our first taste of another of Poland's renowned beers, Żywiec
We headed SW from Poznań into the broad agricultural flatlands of Wielkopolska (Greater Poland) and paused for our lunch at the village of Kórnik where the parkland surrounding the neo-Gothic Zamek (castle) had been planted by its 19th century aristocratic owners as an extensive arboretum (Photo 9 - Kórnik Zamek and arboretum in Wielkopolska). Nearby we reached Puszczychovo, what we called a 'push-chair village' from the tongue-twisting concatenation of sz-cz, common in Polish and pronounced sh-ch as in push-chair, hence 'Push-chikovo'. A young Pole, typical of the brashly confident new generation who have grown up since 1990, emerged from his BMW and in response to our enquiry, directed us to the Wielkopolska National Park information centre where we could buy a detailed map. The delightfully straightforward Albatros Camping at Stęszew (pronounced Stenshev) provided a welcoming night's camp under 100 feet high pine trees, to the accompaniment of chaffinches calling among the trees and the occasional cuckoo and woodpecker. Here in rural areas, there was much need to practise our Polish since little or no English was spoken. In bright sunshine, we enjoyed a satisfying day's walking around the woodlands and lakes of the Wielkopolska National Park. The way-marked paths through beech and pine woods resounded with birdsong, the trees giving welcome shade from the sun's fiercesome heat.
Moving on to the town of Wolsztyn gave more chance to accustom ourselves to Polish driving standards; the most essential feature to appreciate is that Poles are possessed by instinct with an irresistible compulsion to overtake, though most do this without the aggressive tail-gating that has become the bane of UK driving. Minor roads are of reasonable standard, well-signed and driving felt reasonably relaxed. Major roads however, particularly if not dual-carriageway feel ultra-hazardous with constant and inconsiderate overtaking and cutting-in needing defensive awareness. Our planned campsite at Wolsztyn no longer existed, but just north of the town at Karpicko, by serendipitous chance we enquired hesitantly at a lakeside holiday centre, Ośrodek Jelonek. The warden readily welcomed us and cleared space for us to camp between the huts; everything was 'no problem', and best of all we were welcomed to a much-needed beer at the small bar after our long day.
We had 2 reasons for visiting Wolsztyn: the first was that Robert Koch, the 19th century bacteriologist had been district doctor in Wolsztyn from 1872~80 and here had begun his research which formed the basis of modern bacteriology. In 1905, Koch was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the Tuberculosis bacillus, but it was to be another 50 years before Florey's work on Penicillin gave the means of combating the destructive disease. The house where Koch had practised is now set out as a commemorative museum to his life and work.
The town's other attraction is the Wolsztyn Parowozownia, the depot from which a regular steam railway service is operated for the 80 km line between Wolsztyn and Poznań. This is not a preserved railway in the British sense but a routine rail service operated by Polish State Railways (PKP), part of whose timetable happens to be steam hauled. A line of rusting steam engines lines the road to the railway depot where the engines operating the line are maintained. Pride of the fleet is the 1930s Piękna Helena (Beautiful Helen), a huge 4-6-2 locomotive which stood in the roundhouse. The morning's train from Poznań had just drawn in and its engine trundled into the yard for coal and water, and turned on the turn-table ready to pull the 1-30 train which we should catch (Photo 10 - Wolsztyn steam railway). To our surprise, we were the only tourists travelling on the train, which was well used by local passengers, school children, shoppers, commuters, for all the little rural halts between Wolsztyn and Poznań. To counter any train spotting jibes, it has to be said that the huge locomotive was the filthiest steam engine ever seen, dripping with oil and water, and emitting the blackest of smoke as it chuffed along for the 2 hour journey through the flat Wielkopolska countryside. Other services on the timetable are operated by modern, clean, air-conditioned railcars, but if you want to travel to Poznań at 1-30 or back at 5-22, you have to catch the slower, grubbier steam train. We just had time in Poznań before the late afternoon return train to see the bronze memorial to the 3 Polish mathematicians who pre-WW2 had succeeded in breaking the Enigma code, paving the way for Bletchley Park's work which gave the Allies access to German military intelligence. And just around the corner stood the huge monument erected in 1981 on the 25th anniversary of the 1956 Poznań tragic riots which forced the return to power of the reform-minded Gomulka.
Driving through beech-birch wooded rolling hills, we crossed from Wielkopolska into Lower Silesia, pausing at a farming hamlet to photograph a stork's nest; the young were already quite grown and the birds would be migrating in a month or so (Photo 11 - Stork's nest with growing young in Lower Silesian village). Approaching the River Odra, a surprise greeted us: the wide, fast-flowing river was crossed not by a bridge but a small car ferry, and we edged down the steep bank onto the ferry following several other cars (Photo 12 - Car ferry across the River Odra). We continued into Zielona Góra which had once been the only successful vine-growing region of Poland. Mismanagement during the communists era and competition from cheap foreign imports threatened to end the town's wine producing tradition, and the September wine festival seemed more based around past glories. A few small local producers are however managing to re-establish wine production and Zielona Góra's helpful TIC arranged a tasting session for us at Winnica Miłosc. After photos by the vines (Photo 13 - Vines at Winnica Miłosz near Zielona Góra), we joined Mr Krzysztof Fedorowicz on his veranda to taste and buy his 2009 blend of Devin (a Slovakian Traminec grape), Müller-Thurgau and Pinot Blanc, an excellent wine which combined the best qualities of its 3 constituent grapes. His vineyard is at present small with just 1.5 hectares of vines, but he has plans to plant a further 50 hectares on the nearby south-facing hillside. It was delightful meeting with him and we shall look forward to drinking his wine with our Christmas lunch; we wished him well with his new venture. A further 30 kms south, we reached the tiny remote hamlet of Stypułów, and our next campsite, Mały Raj; kept by a Polish-Dutch couple, the small site's name (meaning Little Paradise) reflects the work they have put into creating the camping area in the shady orchard behind their home and the inexhaustible welcome they give to their guests.
The pinewoods and heath land just beyond the nearby town of Żagań was used by the Germans in WW2 as the site of massive POW camps, selected because of its remoteness and the fact that the yellow sandy sub-soil would deter tunnelling activity. The first camp Stalag VIIIC imprisoned 1000s of Polish and Russian POWs, and in 1942, the Luftwaffe built the notorious Stalag Luft III here for captured RAF and USAAF officers. By segregating senior flight crews in this way, the Germans inadvertently turned the camp into an escapology academy, with various ingenious tunnelling attempts underway at any one time, coordinated by an Escape Committee, and backed up by a production industry for civilian clothing and forged travel and identity passes to assist escapees. One of the 1943 escapes used a wooden vaulting horse; 3 RAF officers achieved a successful 'home-run' via neutral Sweden, made famous in Eric William's book The Wooden Horse. But a far more sophisticated escape operation, masterminded by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell aimed to get 100s of POWs out via a trio of tunnels nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry. 600 men were engaged in the tunnels' construction, which was shored up with bed boards, ventilated with air pumped through pipe-work made up of powdered milk tins, and lit by electric light powered by purloined cable. 2 of the tunnels were abandoned, but on the night of 24 March 1944, 80 men escaped into the surrounding woods from Tunnel Harry. 4 were captured at the tunnel's mouth, and of the 76 who fled, only 3 actually managed eventually to reach Britain. 50 of the recaptured RAF escapees were executed in reprisal by the Gestapo. After the war, a concerted effort was made to track down those responsible for this war crime and a number were duly executed. The whole episode was made famous by the book and film The Great Escape.
Żagań's POW camps are commemorated by the Museum of Martyrdom of Allied POWs, set up on the camps' site 3 kms south of the town. Most of the 1000s of POWs, especially Poles and Russians, had to endure conditions far more squalid and brutal than those enjoyed by the relatively privileged RAF officers in Stalag Luft III. The museum presents grievous displays of photographs, documents and memorabilia recalling conditions at the camps, and details of the Great Escape tunnelling. Outside there is a reconstruction of watch tower and barbed-wire fencing, and a mock-up of Tunnel Harry compete with wooden railed trolley on which visitors can re-experience the claustrophobic passage of the tunnel (Photo 14 - Watch-tower and tunnel mock-up at Stalag Luft III). Far more evocative than the rather sanitised reconstruction of a barrack hut are the foundation remains of the wartime hospital block and 'cooler' (punishment isolation hut) in the pine woods (Photo 15 - Reconstruction of barrack hut and remains of original camp hospital hut).
1 km along a track into the pine woods, the route of Tunnel Harry is marked by a commemorative path, inscribed with the names of the 80 escapees including the 50 men executed by the Germans (Photo 16 - Memorial showing length of Great Escape Tunnel Harry); it ends with an engraved boulder set up in 2004 on the 60th anniversary of the Great Escape, marking the spot where the tunnel emerged into the woods beyond the perimeter fence (Photo 17 - Memorial marking Tunnel Harry's exit into woods). The tunnel began under the concrete base of the stove in hut 104 in the northern compound. The access shaft was sunk to a depth of 28 feet, and a horizontal length of 365 feet; an incredible 132 tons of excavated sand had to be hidden or disposed of. It was an unbelievably evocative moment standing here at this spot in the now silent pine woods, reading the names of these brave men and recalling the tragically triumphant events of 1944.
Even more moving was to find the small mausoleum to the 50 escapees murdered by the Germans, where their cremated remains were originally interred by their fellow POWs, in a tidy little memorial garden tucked away incongruously behind a builders merchants (Photo 18 - Mausoleum to 50 RAF escapees murdered by Germans). We stood in silent tribute in front of their memorial which is inscribed with the names and ranks of the 50 RAF officers; and here on this web site we make record of yet another war crime committed by Germans.
Back at our camp that evening, we sat late into the warm dusky evening as fire flies danced around like tiny fairies. After a day's restful break in the delightfully shaded orchard at Mały Raj, we continued our journey through the vast oak and beech forests of Lower Silesia to the far south west of Poland along the border with Czech Republic. The winding road gained height through increasingly hilly terrain with the distant skyline graced by the misty outline of the Karkonosze Hills. We paused briefly at Jelenia Góra, a Lower Silesian town founded originally by the Polish King Bolesław the Distorted, so named because of his speech impediment; perhaps it was he who had bequeathed to the Polish language the letter ł pronounced by the unfortunate Poles as a w, when the other Slavic nations manage to pronounce it as a perfectly normal l. The town fell under Prussian control with the 18th century partition of Poland, only reverting to Poland in 1945 when the mostly German population was expelled westwards and the area repopulated with Poles displaced from Western Ukraine after Stalin's annexation of Eastern Poland. Jelenia Góra's central square, Plac Ratuszowy betrays the town's Germanic architectural inheritance with the pastel-coloured façades of its town houses reaching down to deeply arcaded fronts at street level. The square is dominated by the prominent 18th century town hall which is now topped by the Polish White Eagle and is surrounded by the sun umbrellas of pavement cafés.
We followed the road south towards the Karkonosze Hills which mark the border with Czech Republic, with the conical peak of Śnieżka standing prominently on the skyline. Just before Karpasz, we reached Camping Wiśniowa Polana, a grassy site set under shady oak trees along a river bank at Miłków. Since the tragic death of Poland's former President Lech Kaczynski in the April plane crash, we had been following the country's political events. The presidential election of 20 June had produced no conclusive result, with neither of the leading candidates achieving the constitutionally required 50% of votes. A run-off election was held on 4 July between Bronisław Komorowski and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, twin brother of the late president; we had been seeing the two candidates' posters for the last week. On arriving at the campsite, we learnt that Poland's new president in a close-run contest was to be Bronisław Komorowski of the same party as prime minister Donald Tusk; we wished Poland a constructive political future.
The following morning, we drove up into Karpasz
for our day's walking along the Karkonosze ridge line up onto the peak of Śnieżka.
Karpasz itself, set in a narrow wooded valley is utterly soulless,
over-commercialised resortsville with casinos and tacky souvenir shops, but the
road winds ever upwards beyond to the ski-lift station which takes you up some
2,500 feet to the ridge line above. Gliding silently aloft for 20 minutes to the
upper lift-station above the tree line is an eerily unnerving experience
but does have the advantage of effortless height gain. The Karkonosze ridge line
forms the Polish-Czech border and can be accessed from both sides; we had camped
Mlýn on the Czech side last year. So vast are the resultant daily numbers of
visitors that anti-erosion measures taken by the National Park authorities are
severe, with a wide paved way now constructed up the gently sloping ridge. There
ahead was the stony massif of Śnieżka standing proud above the ridge,
its face scarred by the 2 routes up to the summit. Beyond Dom Ślanski, we took
the direct path which zigzags up the ridge which forms the border. Prominent
points up the rocky ridge gave panoramic views down into the wooded valleys on
the Czech side (Photo 19 -
Polish~Czech border on Karkonosze Ridge, leading to Śnieżka peak).
But amid the crowds of other walkers, the 1,600m (5,000 feet) flat-topped summit
of Śnieżka was almost an anticlimax. Turning our back on the crowds,
we began the descent to enjoy a welcome beer at the Kopa chair-lift station
before taking the easy way down (Photo 20 - Easy way down by
chair-lift from Karkonosze Ridge).