Motorhome News from Poland 1
28th April 2012 Germany, The Pied Piper of Hamelin - and along the Baltic Sea coast into eastern Poland.
A weasel gambolled across the lawn on the morning before we left our home in Suffolk, prancing in and out of the flower-beds and along the patio by the front door. A badger lay dead immediately outside our front gate, stiff and cold from a night at freezing temperatures and a hundred metres along the road crows pecked at the carcass of a roe deer beside a freshly killed fox in the middle of the road. It's not as if there's a lot of traffic in our neck of the woods but it seems it is a major predator. This was not the best send-off for two wildlife enthusiasts en route for Poland and The Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, with dreams of witnessing the mass migration of a few million birds, deer, elk, otters, beavers and European bison - and their natural predators, wolves and bears.
The prospect of the long trek across northern Germany prompted us to break the journey part way and
we diverted into Hameln on a whim as we approached Hannover, fascinated by the town's association with Robert Browning's fairytale of a certain Pied Piper. There were no rats in Hameln when we arrived, dead or alive. They were all drowned in the River Weser so legend tells us. Rats or no rats, Hamelin as we know it, is a sheer delight; a maze of narrow paved streets with fine 16th and 17th century houses, the legacy of rich merchants from the days when Hameln was an important inland port - and there were children in town again, gazing up, wide-eyed in the square. The Pied Piper story is relived as the carillon rings on the Hochzeits-haus and clockwork figures of the Pied Piper and his rats emerge, followed a minute later by a second, a witch-like figure, leading the children away into the mountains. No child should miss this one, however old!
It is just 650 miles from our front door to Pomerania on Poland's north-western border with Germany, via the Stenna Line ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland. To the north, the Baltic Sea, wild nature reserves and summer resorts with beautiful beaches.
The area has been occupied since the early 18th Century by Sweden, Prussia, Germany and finally Russia since the end of WWII and this has left the area with a delightful rustic shadow of the 1950's. Maybe it's the awareness that yet another invader lurks around every corner that makes the people we meet here somewhat reserved. Smiles have been a little hard to come by on first meeting and that might, quite understandably, reflect an inherent mistrust of foreigners!
Our journey across Pomerania took us first eastwards, towards Gdansk and the border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. It is ten years since we were last in Poland and our memories of old tractors and horse-drawn ploughs are valued more than ever now, as modern equipment and changing farming practices is evidenced by wide vistas of finely tilled fields and John Deere and Claas dealerships on the city outskirts. My own lasting memory of this lovely country is one rich in flora and fauna associated with my childhood at home. With luck, the changing landscape in Poland will be better managed, with lessons learned from our folly.
The Baltic coast offers family summer
Jantar - Gdansk Bay
On the Baltic coast
holidays and resort towns span the length of the coast; tidy, smart and as jaunty as any English seaside town. There is little distinctive architecture across the region, villages and farmsteads are much the same as one might find in any corner of middle France perhaps, but every town has its obligatory rectangular appartment blocks, seemingly well cared for, freshly painted in chocolate-box pastel shades. The coast also offers some spectacular bird-watching along the pine-ridged sand-dunes beside the road, and out at sea, great rafts, hundreds of long-tailed ducks, black-throated divers, mergansers, a lesser spotted eagle on the spit and a white-tailed eagle heading out across the bay clutching a huge fish.
Since the break-away from the Soviet Union, free enterprise, coupled with entry into the European Union, has spurred the nation's ecconomy into a rapid change of fortune. Now and again we see abandoned factories, their broken windows and rusting fences a sign of past inefficiency and lack of investment, but new factories and industrial estates have taken their place alongside smart new houses; extremely smart and often large! New roads are being built on a gargantuan scale and old ones upgraded right across the region,
turning patched-up suspension-shattering surfaces to smooth tarmac and smartening up the town approaches, to remind the local populace that entry into the EU has many benefits. Our 'new' Poland map, purchased before we left, was published in 2009 and it's already out of date as we found to our dismay when turning onto an unmarked motorway going in the wrong direction! It has to be said that the roads here are either new and excellent or very bad and potholed - or on minor routes, extremely bad and potholed! Speed restrictions are rigidly enforced in towns and villages with radar and a rather healthy police presence and progress on any highway is frustratingly slow.
Few campsites are open before May Day up here making touring, as only the Grey-haired-nomads know it, somewhat difficult over the first couple of weeks of this trip and often necessitating taking us well off our chosen route. But we have been made welcome everywhere so far, the faciities have been good and astonishingly cheap. Our first couple of nights left a thick coating of frost on the windscreen by morning and temperatures failed to reach more than +8C during the day. Things
improved a bit by Wednesday, soaring to 13C and prompting Janice to exclaim, "That's nearly twice as warm!" (By my reckoning, that's only half as cold). Food is also inexpensive here compared to home and on reflection it was a mistake to bring a month's supply of groceries with us! There are many things on the supermarket shelves we recognise, though the description might not be descipherable as every word appears to contain a z, a couple of y's, an i or an o and a w - and totally beyond our comprehension. Stuffed in the trolley and off-loaded at the till without having to ask makes supermarket shopping an attractive option in these circumstances and so far we're eating all our purchases without too many surprises.
With only a few weeks in Poland it's not really practical to learn to speak the language, but we do like to be seen to be making an effort. There are a few phrases in our guide book and yesterday we learned, whilst driving, to say; Yes (Tak), No (Nie), and Thank you (Dzie Kuje). We popped into a small shop for bread in the afternoon. The little grey-haired lady
hovered behind the counter, somewhat straight-faced as she offered advice on which bread we should choose. Out of courtesy on leaving, I said, "Dzie Kuje." (pronounced jENkoo-yeh - you see the problem). Her eyes brightened and I think I detected a hint of a smile. "You speak Polish?" she asked, clearly impressed.
"No," I replied - in English! I'll get the hang of it eventually.
Almost a third of Poland is forest according to the guide books. Much of it is oak, beach or hornbeam. These forests are rich in birdlife and we have already sampled some of it, tramping through mossy glades, the woodland floor awash with fresh spring flowers and bronze beech-litter crackling like cornflakes underfoot. We're hopeful of seeing a host of different woodpeckers and other woodland birds rarely seen at home. An evening stroll from our campsite by the lake near Kartuzy (the Carthusians founded a monastery here) led us into beech-wooded hills where pied flycatchers lurked, flocks of redwing and fieldfare flitted on the fringes and hundreds of brambling swept through the tree tops above us - there were just two left in our garden on the day we left, feeding
up in preparation for the same journey as us, towards their breeding grounds further north.
South of Gdansk Bay, on the river Nogat, lies the ancient town of Malbork with its huge castle of the Teutonic Knights, tempting us to add a little historic culture to our visit.
This is no ordinary castle. Its massive red-brick battlements stretch endlessly along the river bank in a magnificent array of turrets and towers. Inside, the maze of gateways, cloisters, chapels and refrectories led us to cobbled courtyards and towers leaving us totally bewildered - for more than three hours, and many times completely lost! The castle is all the more remarkable for the huge restoration undertaken since almost total destruction when the Germans were ousted by the Red Army in 1945. (In case you should ever encounter one, you would recognise a Teutonic Knight as he canters down the high-street in his shining armour with a galvanised bucket over his head and a black cross on his white cloak.)
The Lake District as we British know it would not be the 'Lake District' if it didn't rain. That much is also probably true of the
Southern Biebrza Marshes
Janice - and 100 passing cranes, red-necked, black-necked and little grebe, gadwall, pintail, gargany, montagues harrier, white-tailed eagle, godwit, ruff, black, whiskered, and white-winged terns............
Great Masurian Lakes in northeastern Poland, as we discovered when we woke on our first morning there having plannned a number of strenuous birding walks. But it's not in our nature to let a little rain dampen our spirits. The rain had passed by midday for our visit to Lake Luknajno (Swan Lake), appropriately named for its thousands of mute swans that winter there. Boats are prohibited on this lake, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, but elsewhere, pleasure boats, yachts and cruisers are lined up along the moorings waiting for the first whistle of summer to blow. The biggest lake, Lake Sniardwy, covers an area of some forty square miles and its tributaries stretch for hundreds 0f miles - a canoeist's heaven. Cyclists, hikers like us, and canoeists share well-marked trails through the rivers, marshes, forests and delightful green pastures, rising and falling on gentle hills with the easy swell of a wintery sea. There are not many hills across the north. The Tatra Mountains lay on the country's southern border with Slovakia.
There was little choice of campsites in The Lakes this early in the season but we found a tiny gem open for business at
the southern end on a spur of Lake Sniardwy. A few 'boaty people' were there by the jetty when we arrived, sprucing up their boats in readiness for the forthcoming holiday weekend. Handbrake on and electricity connected, we sat with welcome mugs of tea overlooking the lake from our cab window, when a white-tailed eagle swept by before us beyond the reeds, angrily pursued by a dozen crows. Within seconds a spectacular male hen harrier dropped down on the marshy shore - and lifted off again, clutching its prey, a bittern boomed and storks and cranes criss-crossed the skyline! Now, that's our sort of campsite! We stayed for three nights as the first breath of spring burst forth; the hedgerows filled with the first flush of green and a cuckoo called from somewhere beyond the meadow.
Further to the east lies the birding paradise of the Biebrza marshes and the home of a very special family who have been gracious enough to consider us as friends. Hania and Marek share their many acres of marshland farm on the very edge of the Biebrza National Park with their four children, a breeding herd of Konic horses, beavers, wild
boar, elk, pine marten and a host of truly amazing birds, in a woodland setting one would die for. Marek was away for the few days of our visit to this little bit of heaven, guiding a group of wildlife enthusiasts through the maze of wonders this region has to offer. For, in addition to breeding those fine Konik horses you might see on your local marshy wildlife reserve, Marek is first and foremost the benchmark Polish Wildlife Guide that others must all envy (www.wildlife.pl.). His passion is birds and that's where we first came to meet the family, on our last visit to Poland in the Spring of 2002. In Marek's absence, Hania spoiled us for three whole days as only true friends will, with her constant smile, her generous advice on where we might find the region's birds and her company on our walks - and the copious helpings of her truly scrumptious cakes and apple pie (the recipe must surely be a secret handed down through generations). The three children at home were equally gracious, seemingly revelling in the chance to mingle with these strange creatures from England, parked on the meadow in their tiny mobile house.
Marek's Konik horses
A recent addition to the herd
The wildlife in our garden at home might be the envy of many but the sight of beaver as the mist rose from the river at sunrise, hawfinches and middle-spotted woodpeckers on the feeders outside the front door, a wryneck pecking away at the grass outside our window, spotted flycatchers nesting on the end of the stables, the tree-frog chorus like a hundred laughing ducks on cue at 6pm and the thousands of special birds here on the Biebrza marshes is a wish almost too close to a dream.
Tomorrow we'll be migrating northwards into Lithuania, but we'll be back. I'm dreaming of Hania's apple pie and meeting Marek again - and Janice has one or two other birds of this area on her mind. We'll be back in around four weeks when we head south from Estonia, so join us again on Motorhome News in a week or two!
David and Janice
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