To Hel and Back - Poland - A Baltic Bike Odyssey (Part 1/4)
Updated: Mar 30, 2019
The Polish Baltic - under-rated?
The Baltic: hardly conjures up any exotic images in your mind, does it? A frost-bitten, windy, deserted shore, perhaps some toxic waste seeping from some disused factory in Konigsberg or a rusting Russian fleet, neglected and disused, a relic of the cold war. Well think again. The Polish coast is an under-rated part of Europe, much like any part of the Baltic coast, from Denmark to Estonia. Its beaches rarely crowded outside the peak months of July and August, with sparkling sandy beaches and (fairly) reliable sunshine year round (Gdansk reportedly gets as many sunny days in winter as Dubrovnik); and virtually no towns or cities anywhere, never mind industry, so a perfect place to get away from it all before another long Polish winter. I did this trip in early to mid October 2008, after the season (when the Polish coastline is generally packed) and had most of the places I talk about here to myself. Sometimes, literally. The trip came at a time I was not feeling especially positive towards my adoptive country, so if there is any negativity towards Poland here, I apologize. I try not to criticize too heavily a nation I've been living in for a decade and a half, but at times it's hard to avoid a humerous swipe. The overall trip was memorable and interesting and I covered the (approximately) 580km from Swinoujscie to Gdansk in about a week. The scenery was gentle if unspectacular, and I would highly recommend this trip to anyone with a reasonably good level of cycling fitness. It was largely free of cars, along quiet roads, and with plenty of points of interest along the way.
Nightmare night train
I set off one Sunday evening from Kraków at 8pm, on the night train to Swinoujscie, on the Poland-Germany border in far northwest Poland. The Polish night-train used to be legendary for being unsafe. The Krakow-Prague train was noted as being particularly unsafe for female lone travellers, and it was not unusual to wake up in your compartment minus all your belongings, and, in some unfortunate cases, your clothes. I even shared a few vodkas with some Ukranians in a village in the Ukranian Carpathians once who claimed to 'work' the Przemsyl-Wrocław train, robbing its unfortunate passengers and then returning over a dodgy border in the Bieszczady hills with their loot. This story I chose to believe, seeing as they would have no good reason to make such a thing up. Don't ask me why they told me though. Fortunately, things have improved somewhat in recent years, but not on all trains, at all times of the day. It was with some trepidation then that I boarded the train to Swinoujscie with a bicycle and all the cycling paraphanalia that a potential thief might well be licking his lips at. I obviously had a lock, which I hastened to use before I staggered to my compartment with my various bags, bottles, bicycle tools etc. The problem is that Polish trains are often not particularly designed for bikes, and when an inspector sees one, it either confuses him completely or sends him into an apoplexy of rage. Why? They always block the way, either toilet doors or thoroughfares, and they are simply a nuisance. The bikes, not the inspectors. All of which I can sympathise with, but on the other hand it's not my look-out so they should just design better trains or think of a better place to put bikes. As I say, some trains are now much better, and modernised, having nifty racks on which to store your bike - although of course there is no guarantee that you'll have a space for it, even if you have purchased a ticket.
Of course, the inspector saw my bike and immediately demanded my ticket. He scanned it dubiously for a few seconds and pounced on my supplement ticket, for which I had paid an extra 25% for the bike. "Aha!" he announced gleefully. "you don't have a ticket for your bicycle." Of course I do, I told him. You're holding it. "No, no. This ticket is for a dog, not a bike. You need to buy a separate ticket." After which followed a heated exchange, the culmination of which was a stalemate; I refused point-blank to pay anything else when it was clearly not my fault that someone had written'dog' on my ticket instead of 'bike', and he went off muttering something about talking to his superior and threatening to come back. This episode neatly encapsulated Polish bureaucracy and my attitude towards it. If you encounter an overly-dogmatic minor official, it's often best to stick to your guns until said official gives up. It's my stubborn streak I suppose, but I find it often works. Actually, things seem to be changing slightly and improving in this respect, but slowly. Much like many ex-Soviet countries, it has a legacy of rude, incompetent and ignorant public service workers who try to grind the life out of you slowly. In private, Poles are totally different; relaxed, kind-hearted, friendly. Once you know a Pole, they say, you're friends for life. Publicly, (especially older) Poles can, and often do, appear to be brusque and even rude. It shows in everything, and they often have few scruples in the world of work for example, where they do everything to get ahead, or in school, where cheating is widespread and even condoned. And don't get me started about the politics here. Anyway, sorry for that digression, but after ten years of living here, I have some, let's say 'issues' with Polish officialdom. The train journey was hell. Much to my surprise and indignation, the train was packed with people until we reached Poznan, at 3am, and that means 8 people in a compartment with every corridor full as well. Why? Who travels at such unsociable hours? I only took the night-train to avoid these people. Of course I got no sleep, even after the train emptied at Poznan; I checked my bike, and was dismayed to find that someone had stolen my back light, fittings and all. Well prepared thieves here - they even carry around a full set of phillips scewdrivers. Why had I left it on the bike? My fault really, you might say. I checked my bike regularly until 6am, when I finally decided that the drunks who were hanging around near it were too drunk to try and break the lock (and they could hardly run away with it down the train) so I decided to try and get some sleep. Which I did, fitfully, scrunched up against a head rest, for two hours. In the weak morning sunshine, I squinted out of the window and noticed a narrow line of pine trees, some sandy soil and in the distance, the blue-grey outline of the sea. We had arrived.
Arrival - Day One - to Dzwinów
Swinoujscie is a port, much like any other I suppose, sort of split in two by a river which for some reason isn't bridged. A ferry runs back and forth every few minutes to take you to the centre, so I took it and sought out the nearest cafe to ablute (is that a verb?) and eat breakfast. The crows of some seagulls overhead signalled I was by the seaside, but I could no longer see the sea. Like a good few Polish seaside resorts, Swinoujscie's centre is a good few hundred metres from the seashore. Maybe they've planned ahead and made contingency plans for the rising sea levels. I went to the nearest cycle shop and replaced my stolen back light. I hoped the light thieves had got a good price for the old one - at least enough for a beer or two. I also obtained a map of the area. The town is very popular with Germans, having had a long German history and obviously still being right on the border. The promenade was scattered with elderly couples, mostly German, licking ice creams and generally doddering about aimlessly. I took a few pictures of my starting point to the trip, including a bizzarre windmill-style construction (actually a navigational tool for ships) at the end of a short pier, then cycled back past the docks to the ferry and over the other side to the Wolsinski National Park.
The Wolin National Park basically encompasses an island which lies to the east of Swinoujscie and to the north of Szczecin lagoon. It's main resort, Międzyzdroje, which I reached after a couple of hours of pleasant off-roading through pine forest trails, is one of the more characterful Polish beach resorts. For one thing, it has something resembling cliffs lying just to the east of it, which is highly unusual in Poland, where flatness is much more common along the coast. For another, it has a pier similar to Brighton's, where there is a kind of enclosed arcade with shops, restaurants, games machines etc. All of which is very nice for twenty minutes but utterly banal thereafter. I soon left after strolling around listlessly for a while watching the elderely Germans disembarking on the pier for a cheap afternoon. I set off on a stiff climb up some hills deeper into the national park. After scaling the mighty Mount Grzywacz (115m), I paused at the lovely Lake Gardno and then at the very pretty Village of Wiselka, which was fringed by a number of pleasant lakes also.