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Published: August 3rd 2019
Pop up facilities in Vilnius, showers, toilets, kitchen & laundry
Look grim from outside but inside very stylish, functional and just like a hotel.
14th July - 3rd August 2019
After a quick look at Trakai castle we crossed over from Lithuania to Poland. Jim had identified a national park camping spot on his phone and recorded the approximate co-ordinates where the pin seemed to be and we headed there.
It was a very quiet rural area with only the odd small house dotted along the beautiful, slow flowing river of crystal clear water and reed beds. The road was an unpaved track but passable. After a few minutes wandering up and down where Kate kept saying we should turn into our camp site we realised there was no camp. We had turned back towards the main road when we saw some kayaks on the river and a sign, so Jim hopped out to read it. It said (Jim guessed, no English) that it cost one szloty to land a kayak and use the picnic tables. Then an old man came down to see Jim.
They communicated, he spoke no English and obviously Jim knows no Polish but after a couple of minutes they had agreed that we would pay
Trakai Castle, Lithuania
The Gothic castles are built of red brick, quite a shock when used to stone built British castles. They look so new, but having said that much has been rebuilt in recent years
5 Euros to stay overnight. Don't know how they managed it but it seemed to involve waving a 10 Euro note and the man miming cutting it in half. It was a quiet, relaxing place to overnight and cook on the picnic tables but I refused to use the wooden toilet cabins which were the size of coffins and standing upright in the middle of a field of knee high grass. We were alone apart from a German couple who arrived by kayak about 9pm and speedily erected a small tent to sleep in.
The next morning as we headed back to the main road we realised why we had missed the official campsite. It was about a quarter of a mile from where we had stopped but on the opposite side of the river hidden in the woods. Where Kate was telling us to turn we would have reached it if we had been able to swim across the river. The co-ordinates had not been precise enough to take us down the right bank of the river but it had not mattered as our riverside space had been good and quiet. In Poland free
camping is illegal.
Our next stop was near Giertoz where the Wolf's Lair can be found. This was Hitler's HQ for his invasion of the Soviet Union. The site consists of a few buildings which have some limited accommodation and a restaurant and the ruins of numerous bunkers designed to provide working space and accommodation. They were very strongly fortified and camouflaged to protect against bombing raids. The bunkers were built of reinforced concrete many feet thick but now in most places the steel rods in the concrete have corroded and the huge concrete blocks have collapsed. No entry is allowed inside as they are dangerous. Numbers identify the blocks so we passed Hitler's bunker and those of Field Marshal Keitel, Martin Borman, Herman Goring and Johann Rattenhuber, SS Chief of Hitler's security department amongst others.
There are a few military vehicles on display but without any information in English it was hard to know what they were. A handful of photographs taken at the location during the War are displayed.
Seeing the bunkers torn apart like this and covered in mould and lichen seems
the most appropriate ending for them. They are such a dark presence amongst the idyllic wooded glades.
We stopped there not because of the historic context but because it was on our route and it allows motorhomes to stay on the grounds overnight. Wolf's Lair was where some German officers tried to assassinate Hitler with a bomb in a brief case. The attempt failed as someone else had moved the briefcase behind a solid oak desk leg which provided Hitler with protection when it exploded. The officers were executed immediately. If you saw the film Valkyrie with Tom Cruise you might remember the event portrayed.
We were amazed by the huge number of visitors there, mainly Polish and German but with small numbers from other European countries.
As we crossed the Baltic states and of course in Poland, it is impossible not to be aware of the impact of WWll and especially the annihilation of the Jewish populations across these countries. There are museums in all the Baltic capitals detailing the horrific events.
From Wolf's Lair we drove to Malbork,
south of Gdansk, to have a quick glimpse of the Gothic castle there, the largest in Europe and once the headquarters of the Teutonic Order of knights.
The site we had chosen is across the wooden bridge from the castle, perhaps five minutes walk away. A fantastic location. We arrived on Wednesday and strolled around the castle, only to find that the following Friday would be the start of a three day festival to include re-enactments of the 1410 siege of the castle, a medieval village, craft and weapon displays and a food truck fair. So we stayed.
It was fun. The whole site was buzzing with activities and although busy with lots of families it was not overcrowded. We looked at the siege machines, archery and artillery displays, medieval domestic tasks in the village and listened to music. On the Friday we paced ourselves. We walked into the castle in the morning, looked around and then raided the food trucks for lunch. They represented food from all cuisines including Japanese, Mexican and Indian but for us the bonus was that local Polish dishes were on display so we were
able to identify the foods we had wanted to taste. Much easier than working from a menu.
Then we retired, satiated, back to Astrid for a rest until late afternoon when it was time for the loud bangs of exploding artillery. Mind you, I did find the siege machines rather disappointing. It took lots of adjustment and hammering to set up one that looks like a huge catapult. Then finally they were ready to fire the canon ball which I think was made of black rubber. It rose gently about four metres into the air and travelled hesitantly about five metres in an arch before landing softly and apologetically on the grass. It was so lethargic that when they fired it the second time I was tempted to run onto the field, catch the ball and shout 'out!'
Then it was back to Astrid for a cup of tea until it was time for the music at 6pm. We listened to a group called Amber Chant, who specialise as you might expect in Gregorian chant but whose repertoire includes such well known songs as Greensleeves, Scarborough Fair and a fabulous
rendition of 'Taking the Hobbits to Isengard' which was new to me. (Can be viewed on Utube) Then the biggest surprise of all is that they were followed by a small Welsh choir. The men sang and their wives waved their Welsh flags as we all sat on the grassy bank, overlooking the stage and under the towering castle, on a blissfully warm evening. At last we are having good weather. Reluctantly we moved on from Malbork Castle after three days.
Before leaving Malbork one thing there caught my attention. By the ticket office I spotted a large poster displaying photographs of three men and the caption underneath said something like, these three Polish men, mathematicians and cipher specialists, broke the Enigma Code. I stopped in my tracks. There was no mention of Alan Turing. The caption was in Polish and English. That was surprising as we had struggled to find anything written in English since entering Poland. Hmmm! Clearly someone was making a statement.
Jim took me back to Astrid and went online to check the facts. (I think he was trying to thwart an international incident as I
was asking him for a marker pen to add a comment to the poster.) It was enlightening. The following is my understanding of what happened but it might not be accurate. In fact the three Polish men did work on cracking the Enigma code as early as 1930 and they continued until 1939 when they gave the machine they had built to, and shared their work with, the British. They had cracked the code but at that stage the Germans did not change it that frequently so there was more time to work on it between communications. Then with the outbreak of war the Germans upgraded security of the code and started to change it every day. It was suddenly more sophisticated and unbreakable once again. So the British were urgently working on it and then in 1941 a German U-boat was captured and an Enigma machine and notebook were found on board. This provided crucial data which had a huge impact on the work being carried out at Bletchley Park by Alan Turing and others.
So it seems the Poles did play an important part, particularly the crypt analyst Marian Rejewski who had built
his machine in 1938, which was critically important but did not crack the updated code.
It appears that in Poland there is a strong feeling that their role has been overlooked and/or neglected because, as we read, 'after the war they ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain'. Looking at the information provided by Bletchley Park they do clearly acknowledge the importance of the Polish contribution in their displays both on site and online. Although work carried out by Polish participants is mentioned in the film, The Imitation Game (2014), the main emphasis is on Alan Turing and it was criticised by some at the time as inaccurately portraying historic events and hugely underplaying the collaborative effort of other British participants as well as the Polish mathematicians and analysts. I suppose the morale of this story is that it is risky to rely on films as your historical source! Personally I would have liked to have seen a brief reference to the British contribution on the Polish poster.
This part of Poland is covered with Gothic castles and we spent two nights at Swiecie, by a very
small castle, before arriving at Torun. Again the only reason for stopping there is because it is on our route across Poland to Germany and the Lonely Planet mentioned it briefly. That encouraged Jim to look it up online and he discovered that it is one of the largest intact Medieval town centres in Europe. It has been lucky in that it has avoided damage from more recent wars so that nearly all the Old Town comprises original buildings which cover an area approximately six blocks by nine, forming a large area of fascinating architecture. It is packed with Gothic churches, clock towers, Baroque granaries and houses, Medieval tenement houses and even has a its own leaning tower.
Torun, on the Vistula River, was founded by the Teutonic Order of knights and monks which was formed in Acre near Jerusalem in 1190, and became a military order in 1198. The first Grand Master was Heinrich Walpot von Bassenheim and the full title was the Order of Brothers of the German House of St Mary in Jerusalem. They looked after the protection of Christians in the Holy Land and the Baltic region and waged war on
non Christians. Early in the 13th
Century a Polish prince brought the Order to the area to subdue pagan Prussian tribes but deciding they liked the region they built a castle, then established the city of Torun and then quickly followed this with other castles and cities in the region, rapidly resulting in a Teutonic State.
As their power increased they became a threat to Poland and it was only after a number of battles and 200 years that the Teutonic Knights were finally driven out.
St John's is the oldest and largest church in Torun, and it contains the original stone font where Nicolaus Copernicus was baptised. Copernicus is the town's most famous inhabitant and there is a statue of him in the town square, as well as gingerbread men replicas of him in every shop and cafe. Gingerbread has been a speciality of Torun for a long period and there is a Gingerbread museum and old bakery.
Copernicus was born into a prosperous merchant family in 1473. He studied in Krakow and Italy and was a successful doctor and mathematician as well as
being well versed in canon law and economics. A genuine Renaissance Man! From his astronomical observations he proved that it was the earth rotating on its axis that revolved around an stationary sun and he published his findings in his book, 'On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres' in 1543, the year of his death. Clearly this put him at odds with the Church and it was probably only his status and contacts, including his uncle who was a bishop, that afforded him some protection. Or maybe they did not provide sufficient protection and that was why he either did not publish sooner or why he died shortly after publication?
I did try to research Polish history as it seems so complicated and I know so little. After intense effort, mining the internet and discussing it with Jim, we are still totally bemused. It is horrendously complex, involving Slavs, Prussians, Russians, Swedes, Austrians, not to mention the Germans and the Teutonic Order. Eventually we admitted defeat, retaining only one fact, that the pinnacle of Polish history when the economy, learning and social cohesion was at its peak was in the 15th
Century, ......... possibly?
So, in what appears to be a recurring pattern, we stayed longer than expected in Torun. As we have a crossing booked now for the 5th
August we can't do this everywhere otherwise we will never get to the ferry on time.
After Torun we returned to basic rural retreats, usually by a lake and amid vast fields of golden wheat some of it already being harvested, and deep green fields of maize still growing rapidly. Lots of soft fruits and a wide variety of vegetables were also visible as we drove past farms and houses in tiny hamlets with cottage gardens. That was how we covered the rest of the country until we crossed the border into Germany at Frankfurt on Oder.
We are taking the most direct route east to west which is along the E30. It would be a lie to say it is speedy – the roadworks and a couple of accidents made sure of that! The journey from the border to Potsdam took an extra couple of hours because of reduced speed limits as the road works continue on endlessly mile
after mile. Although we are very close to Berlin we decided not to visit as we do not have time to see it properly so save that for another visit and instead we stopped in Potsdam, just to the south west of Berlin and not at all what we were expecting.
The town centre, which is undergoing massive amounts of renovation work to restore the main buildings either previously damaged or left to decay, is surrounded by huge areas of parkland including the Sans Souci Park. These parklands are stuffed full of palaces, mansions and monuments. Honestly, there are so many it is unbelievable. They are all different styles and built at different times but what they have in common is they reflect the power, wealth and grandeur of those power. It is a fascinating place to walk around because there are so many palaces you can walk from one to the next in five minutes or so until you have seen so many statues and gargoyles that you need to rest.
The day after Potsdam didn't go to plan. It started badly with an accident on the E30 not
far into our journey. The road was going to be blocked for some time but as we were near an exit we managed to leave the road, do a few jobs, have an ice-cream and then get back on the road a couple of junctions further along and continue to our selected stopping site. We chose it because it had electricity, showers, toilets, fresh water and chemical toilet point. Everything we needed and after three very hot days in Potsdam the showers were a special attraction.
We arrived to find the site is being redeveloped and apart from fresh water and chemical toilet drain everything else had disappeared. So we used those facilities, topped up with fresh water and set off to our back up site only a couple of miles away. That one, at an old mine site next to the police station, appeared closed too. It only advertised electricity, no other facilities, but seemed to be deserted and almost derelict. The electricity box was locked and no-one was around. By this time it was well after lunch and we were thanking our lucky stars for the ice cream we had eaten earlier so
Potsdam: Sans Souci Palace
Sans Souci means without worries. Built by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff for Frederick the Great, based on the king's own ideas
we decided to stay but Jim did pop into the police station to check that it was ok as there were no signs or activity. The police officer did not speak English but said, no problem.
So finally settled, we had lunch and I sat in the sun, until I saw something move by my foot. It was a little field mouse. Somehow if I call them field mice it sounds more like wild life than vermin. I tried to chase him away but he was reluctant to go, looking up at me as if he had found a new friend. I had to clap and jump around before he left. That seemed unusual. Then Jim decided to walk into the village. Half an hour later my friend returned to keep me company but by then four or five of his family had raced about the grassy verge. By that stage I was having flashbacks to the night in King's Canyon, Australia where they had the plague of mice who spent the night using the inside of our van as a race track. I did not want a repeat of that. So reluctantly Jim agreed
to move out into the centre of a huge empty car park adjacent to the site, in the hope that the distance from the nearest verge might act as a deterrent. It seemed to work as we had no more sightings of little visitors.
We drove on into the Netherlands and I went to the supermarket. At the check out my card did not work so I took out my alternative cards. The assistant gave me a bewildered look and said, 'but none of them will work. It cannot read them'. I stared in disbelief, as she explained that non of the supermarkets would accept the cards, but I could probably, 'buy shoes or clothes with them in some shops'. Well! After just using them happily in ten other European countries, as well as using our cards all over the world without problems we had failed to spot that in the Netherlands they do not accept them in food shops or many other places. We scrabbled around and eventually came up with enough cash. Just as well, there was no ATM in the neighbourhood of course.
But apart from that
Even the film museum is in an old palace
The Babelsburg studios started here in 1911
hiccup we enjoyed our stops in the Netherlands, on three small farm sites, where we watched the cows amble in and out of the milking parlour, tried to avoid running over hens and where on one site they presented us with two new laid eggs. Perhaps that was our reward for letting the hens live.
We are now a short drive from the ferry at the Hook of Holland so I will post the blog from here. Our trip through France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland has been a real road trip of about 6,500 miles. That is equivalent to a quarter of the way around the earth.
In case anyone is wondering, our food supplies ran out after 2½ months so we did quite well. In Norway we only had to buy two loaves and a few fresh salad and fruit items. Just as well as the cost of everything there is prohibitive - remember it cost us £4 to 'spend a penny'!
Astrid has had an amazing range of camping spots, alongside palaces, castles, marinas,
Surprised to see water & electricity so close together
This is normal across Baltic states and Poland. Jim put plastic bag around our connection to give it some protection as tap was in constant use.
lakes, mountain passes, fjords, beautiful towns and villages, and not forgetting of course the few basic car parks in industrial areas that served as an overnight haven when we wanted to stay near the motorways. She has proved very comfortable, keeping us warm for the first couple of months as we went up to the Arctic Circle and cool over the last few hot and stormy days in Germany. And now we no longer have two months supplies of everything from food to kitchen rolls and shower gel tucked in all the corners she is amazingly spacious. I no longer share my bed with packs of tea bags, coffee and cereals. In fact, Jim has run out of cereals so we have to come home. You can't buy Shreddies here!
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