In May 2010 I decided to leave my job in Australia and travel around the world before moving to the USA. This journey ended up involving travelling in 18 countries on 4 continents (North America, Europe, Asia and Australia) and taking me around the world 1.5 times over a 12 month period! I wrote a number of travel emails from that trip and I thought it would be fun to revisit them with some additional info and photos. The following blog is Part 16 of that journey (Northern and Eastern Poland).
July 29th, 2010
2 days in Gdansk in northern Poland on the Baltic, involved exploring a really nice old town with a diverse history as a trading centre ruled by many different kingdoms, countries and even the Teutonic Knights over the years since being founded in 980 AD. It has even been a free city (independent of any country) on two occasions: 1807-1814 created by Napoleon Bonaparte before his empire was defeated, then controlled by the Prussians; and 1920-1939 following the defeat of Germany in WW1 (administered by the League of Nations the predecessor to the United Nations).
Whilst in a local restaurant I tried a drink so horrid….milk with thick sour cream…topped by a thick coating of chopped chives and spices which had no sweetness…all sour. I am always up for trying different cultures foods etc – the waitress told me it was very popular…mad fools! Never again for me – much prefer trying to digest silkworm larvae exoskeleton or pig intestines in China again than this demonic brew from the cesspits of hell! It was more like what you would put on a potatoe than drink….a cold chill runs down my spine as I write this! There is not much food/drink wise that defeats me, but this was disgusting (I am sorry Poland)!
An important part of a visit to Gdansk is to trace the steps of the Solidarity Movement – led by shipyard worker Lech Wałesa in the 1980’s, who helped start the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe, won a Nobel Peace Prize and later became the first President of Poland post communism (1990 – 1995). First I went to the Memorial To Fallen Shipworkers, built in 1980 at the then “Lenin Shipyard” – the shipyard workers were killed by the Polish Communists in 1970 over a labour dispute.
The other key place to visit is the Solidarity Museum which details the history of this period through various interesting displays covering the shipyard strike of 1980 through to the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989. This strike involved 17,000 shipworkers, 17 days later they had been granted the right to run an independent union (Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity), in just over 1 year later membership was 9,000,000 people!
This strike ultimately changed the world, but before this happened the Soviets in the USSR were not happy with events and forced the Polish communists to declare Martial Law and outlaw solidarity in 1981. Union leaders were imprisoned including Lech Walesa, he spent a year in jail and was basically harassed by the Communists for the next 7 years. During this time the union worked underground with a non-violence approach, financially supported by US Trade Unions and publicly supported by Pope John Paul II who was born in Poland.
Throughout the 1980’s Poland was suffering a severe economic crisis, western countries refused to provide aid unless the Solidarity movement was recognised by the Communists. On top of this the Solidarity movement was driving immense social pressure through the people of Poland on the Communists. This lead to sweeping changes in economic and political reform and eventually free elections in 1989, where Solidarity won a majority of seats in parliament. The people of Poland were free again for the first time since 1939, Lech Walesa became president, 6 months later the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern Europe started to be truly free from the USSR which itself collapsed in 1991.
I also visited the Westerplatte Monument just outside of Gdansk on the coast. This was the place where the first shots of WW2 were fired by the German warship SMS Schleswig-Holstein at a Polish Garrison on September 1st, 1939 during the German invasion of Poland (in German Gdansk was known as Danzig). Less than 200 Polish soldiers held off over 3000 German troops for a week at Westerplatte before eventually surrendering due to a lack of supplies and no chance of reinforcement. The monument was built in 1966 to commemorate these coastal defenders. The ruins of the garrison still remain along with a museum on the battle.
Somewhat of a misguided 24 hour period followed that saw me go from Gdansk, to Ketrzyn, the “Wolf’s Lair“, Gizycko and then a place called Mikolajki in the Mansurian Lakes district of Poland (taking numerous buses and trains to get to all these places). I stayed in a pension in Mikolajki, which is basically someones house where rooms are rented out – I had to communicate with the middle-aged couple who own it using English, Polish and German! Nothing much was planned and I have run into numerous transport and accommodation hurdles – but I made it!
The “Wolf’s Lair” (Wolfsschanze) – Adolf Hitler’s command bunker complex from 1941 to 1944 where the invasion of Russia: Operation Barbarossa and the ongoing battles of WW2 were commanded from. The complex near Gierloz covered quite a large area in the middle of a forest (6.5 km2 or 2.5 mi2 ) and was a really interesting place to visit. Although mostly blown up by the Germans before the Russians got there in 1945, much remains, but it is mostly massive slabs of concrete and twisted metal, with dark and damp tunnels to explore in some of the old bunkers. Quite amazing really that such a place still exists.
The “Wolf’s Lair” bunkers are like modern-day Egyptian tombs. I got to walk around in some of the tunnels etc, unfortunately I was a bit rushed and would have liked to have seen more, but I was kind of stuck, no local public transport was running on a sunday, the daily bus to there was no longer operating, so I had to hire a taxi to get to and from there (the driver actually came for a look too…although he wouldn’t go into the tunnels). Oh well, I got to see the main sites i.e. the ruins of the conference room where the failed assassination attempt on Hitler was made by Claus Von Stauffenberg on July 20th, 1944 (as part of Operation Valkyrie) and the main Hitler bunker, amongst many others.
Mikolajki was a nice place to relax for a couple of days. I spent time riding a bike down a country road, past cornfields, a lake, saw storks atop a giant nest. The next day I went kayaking for a couple of hours on Jezioro Mikolajkie (one of the Mansurian Lakes), where I saw wild swans and water birds amongst many sailing boats around me!
Then it was back to Gizycko for a night, then an early morning start, 2 trains and 2 buses later I was in Bialowieza – a quiet little village with wooden houses, deep in the middle of a forest close to the Belarus border (20 years ago the USSR border). I am staying in this nice little cabin at the back of someones house – has a kitchen, living area – even satellite TV (mind you it took me 2 days to find a computer in town I could use the internet on – but every house has a satellite dish!), all for about $30 a night.
I spent 2 days exploring the Bialowieski National Park, the last primeval forest in Europe (old growth forest). This forest was used as a private hunting ground by the Russian Tsar’s (1888-1917) when Poland was part of their empire. It has herds of wild European Bison (Wisent) and many other animals – Lynx, Wolf, Elk etc. The Bison were hunted to extinction in the wild (plus from losses in WW1), by 1923 there were only about 50 Wisent left in zoos around the world. In 1929 the Bison were reintroduced to Bialowieski and have successfully reproduced (there are around 300 in the park now) and they have also been re-introduced to other areas of Europe as wild herds. Alas I saw none of these animals in the forest! But I did see them in a breeding grounds area they have set up (except the Wolves that would not co-operate). Forest and wildife…my element. It is a beautiful lush, green forest…even with the mandatory mosquitos!
You can freely wander the forest trails surrounding the park but the only way you can enter Bialowieski National Park’s “strict reserve” is by a guided walking tour (there are guards posted at entrance gates to the main forest to make sure you don’t get around this rule). Alas this tour was only available in Polish language (for a fee an English guide can be found but I didn’t have the time to wait to find one in town or the surrounding area!), so I tagged along and pretended to understand every word, nodding my head appropriately as the guide pointed out various plant life etc on the tour! It didn’t matter, all I wanted was to take in the beauty of the forest and I was not disappointed.
Tomorrow I have the long trip to Vilnius – goodbye Poland, hello Lithuania!