To Hel and Back - Poland - A Baltic Bike Odyssey (Part 2/4)

Updated: Mar 30, 2019


Every cloud...sand dunes near Ustka

Foreword/Disclaimer

This blog was originally written as a rather embittered email during a fairly lonely and frustrating bike tour in often bad weather along a Polish coastline which has the tendency to get repetitive after a few hundred kilometres. The last paragraph here is particularly negative, so apologies for that my Polish friends, and I hope the humour shines through the piss and vinegar. I have to report that, ten years on, Polish beer has improved considerably, as have pizzas (in the major cities) and quality of fish and chips (ditto). The Lektor, however, sadly remains, as does the bad TV and terrible darts (and pool) playing. Maybe by 2028..

Coastline near Kołobrzeg

Jekyll and Hyde

The Baltic coast is unlike the Balkan coast, and should not be confused. Ok, I'm not assuming your geographical knowledge is on a par with the average American President, but just so we're sure - There are no sweeping cliffs crashing into the sea, no caves, coves, inlets or islets, no hairpin bends looping daringly around impossible contours. Just mile after mile of sparkling, white, unspoilt, empty beaches, roads with gentle bends and mild inclinations, punctuated by the odd pretty but deserted village or small town. Deserted and empty now, of course. The Polish seaside has a Jekyll and Hyde character, for in July and August, regardless of the weather, it fills up with hedonistic Poles, hell-bent on a good time, sun, sea and whatever, all at prices which make your eyes water by Polish standards. Hotels and restaurants routinely hike prices up 50 to 100% and you have a job finding anywhere to stay if you don't book ahead. Well ahead. For the other nine or ten months of the year, everything closes and goes back to sleep, making it difficult to find a place to stay for a different reason. All of which begs the question, when is a good time to visit the Polish coast? I spent long hours in the saddle contemplating this very question.

Old town, Darłowo

Day 2 - Dziwnów to Kołobrzeg

I spent my second day of cycling going east from Dziwnów to Kołobrzeg. It was interesting in parts. I had managed a decent night's sleep in a freezing room - the woman who had reluctantly sold me the room the previous night wasn't there to berate in the morning for forgetting to turn on the radiators, so I had to keep my frustrations to myself. I had had to swathe myself in several blankets to keep warm. I literally had the whole hotel to myself - though that statement is of dubious value. I left and started the day with an encouraging pancake filled with bananas, hazlenuts and chocolate. Lots of carbohydrates, perfect for the bike at one of the few seaside cafes still open for business. The sun was shining and there was a slight tail wind, which I expected as I was cycling east. Headwinds are a pain when you're a cyclist; they gradually wear you down without you realising it, making you feel like you're constantly going uphill. My bike, which I have had for over 15 years, was purring confidently and all was well. Until I got 30km down the road, and the road disappeared. I had come to a forest and the edge of what on my map was a large green area with no markings. I had been following the coast constantly, and been past some very pleasant dunes and marshes, populated by various species of birds, the only ones I could identify being swans, storks and herons, other than seagulls.

Swanning around somewhere east of Kołobrzeg

I decided to head past an ominous-looking sign which generally gave the impression of saying 'keep out', but it was faded and there were a couple of words on it I didn't know, so I continued recklessly on. The road had become a sand path, which meant I had to wheel my bike for about half an hour, before coming to some concrete sleepers which had been laid down as a kind of road, so I continued in the same direction, for about 45 minutes; during this time, I spotted no person, dwelling or even animal. I was utterly alone. Then I got to a huge gate and barbed wire fence, beyond which I could make out an army barracks. Brilliant. You can't even come to a wilderness like this without it being spoiled and fenced off by some shaven-headed gits. I back-tracked, first on the forest path, then through some trees and onto a path near the beach I had spotted. Unfortunately, this wound about 3km in vaguely the wrong direction and then petered out into nothing. By this time, the sun was slowly disappearing. I was completely lost in the forest, and I couldn't even see or hear where the sea was. I headed in a direction I thought was the sea, until after about twenty minutes I was still lost and headed in another direction. Eventually, I came across some more concrete sleepers, which then became a proper road, which then became dotted with houses, then cars came into sight and I knew I was back in civilisation. How can you find yourself if you never get lost? That's what I say.

Where did the road go? Forest path east of Dziwnów

The final 30km or so was dispatched without stops as the sun was quickly disappearing, and I arrived in the large, anonymous-looking town of Kołobrzeg at about 7pm. The town was a typical Polish beach town, in that it wasn't really next to the beach, and it took me a good 30 minutes of cycling around to actually find the promenade. All in all, not a beauty, and I wasn't disappointed that I hadn't left time to look around its modest centre. Accommodation was strangely at a premium - I later found out that it was very popular with Germans here - and it took me ages to find anywhere vaguely cheap to stay. It turned out to be in the cellar of a restaurant, and at 50zl ($15) a night, it wasn't exactly a giveaway. Especially considering it was freezing, there was no radiator, and I had to clear the shower of random items of junk before using it - then finding out that it emitted nothing more than a luke-warm dribble. I went out to look for bars, but there was nothing open near the beach where I was staying, and it was a 30 minute walk to the actual centre. I opted to have an early night with some take-out beer, a cupa soup and the TV. I got home and the TV didn't work. There was an odd odour coming from somewhere, and for some reason the room was filled with gnat-like insects. It was all rather depressing.

Fishing boats, near Darłowo

Day 3 - Kolobrzeg to Darłowo

From Kołobrzeg, there are ferries (four hours) to a small Baltic island called Bornholm, although it isn't Polish. It's Danish. Don't worry if you haven't heard of it, not many have. Lots of Poles go there though, usually packing up with bags of tinned food and bottles of vodka along with camping gear to avoid the huge costs of being in Scandinavia. It's a kind of proxy Polish island, being that this country unusually does not possess one island off its 700km coastline. I haven't been there, but have heard it's extremely pretty and excellent for cycling, being low-lying. After the first couple of days, the coast kind of became very samey, and there's no point describing the scenery as it is all very much of a muchness. Once you've been to one Polish beach resort, you've been to all of them really. They scrolled past like one of those background scenes in a cartoon, changing very little from place to place. The number of discos, bars and restaurants in many of these tiny, deserted villages hinted at the numbers of people that arrive in the summer months. A lot of the nature around these villages is extremely pretty though - pine forests, lakes and sand dunes punctuating the coast pretty much its whole length to Gdansk. I arrived on my third day in Darłowo, after a relatively taxing day of 110km, involving a few lost paths and wrong turnings, but nothing as tragic as the previous day. Darłowo is the only recognisably old town on the Polish coast, other than Gdansk (which had to be virtually completely rebuilt after the war),with a traditional square and pleasant old cobbled streets. It too was deserted though, and finding a place to stay was again quite a challenge. I had got used to sitting in dreadful bars with nothing but a handful of drunks and a book for company, and this night was no different. A warm bowl of barszcz and some rather soggy fish and chips was hardly a gourmet meal, but as it was in the only open restaurant in town and I was starving, it was appreciated. At least the room I eventually found was good and had a working radiator.

Darłowko: one of the prettiest villages on the Polish coast

Day 4 - Darłowo to Ustka

The fourth day was when the weather decided to go Pete Tong on me. It started off badly and tailed off, in terms of enjoyment. I managed a totally unenjoyable 65km along the coast to Ustka, through pretty Darłowko where I stopped to take pictures and along some quick but dull roads instead of slow, hard-to- negotiate tracks. Still, the traffic was very light, as it had been all along so far, which was one plus on an otherwise total write-off of a day. I arrived in Ustka, a fairly non-descript fishing village, wet, cold and in a bad mood, and had to spend an hour searching for a place to stay which was anywhere near my price range; everywhere had totally closed up for the winter and I had to go a couple of kilometers out of town where I eventually got a pleasant room for the night with a TV and bath. I went downstairs to get a pizza. Although I can't say the pizza itself was bad - a pepperoni with chilli and peppers - it came drowned in tomato ketchup - on top of the toppings. It has long been a mystery to me why many Poles eat their pizzas in this way, rendering all pizzas tomato sauce flavour, regardless of topping. I went back upstairs to watch TV, but the Jim Carrey film on TV only worsened my mood, along with the 'lektor', the Polish voiceover on all foreign language films which serves to narrate all voices in the film, as well as any narration, rendering any film to a non-Pole unwatchable. The wisdom of whoever decided this was a good idea must be in severe doubt. Sure, dubbing is annoying, and subtitles hard work, but this is teeth-grittingly infuriating. Believe me. I switched the TV off and decided to go out. All that was in the area I was staying in were some 'drink bars' as they advertise them; basically, drunks' bars. The beer or vodka is usually cheap, but of questionable quality, and there is usually either a pool table with beer stains all over it or an electronic darts board, or both. In this one, there was a darts board, and some skinheads playing darts. I wouldn't normally frequent a place like this in Krakow, but there being no choice on this occasion, I walked determinedly to the bar and ordered a beer, a Gdansk beer called 'Specjal', which, at 6zl and 6 percent, was both strong and cheap, though utterly flavourless. I have to say that this isn't anything unusual in Poland. The Poles like their beer strong and cheap, and pay scant regard to taste.

Kawałki ośmiu: a pirate, Ustka

I downed it, then ordered another two in quick succession. I then sat down, regrettably, near the darts board. I did this not so much to get closer acquainted with the locals, but to escape a rather lecherous hag at the bar who appeared to be giving me the eye and who may have been an ageing lady of the night, though a very drunk one. The only other free seat was near the darts board. I got my book out and my map, and started plotting the next day's cycling, trying to look as occupied as possible - and as disinterested in the game as possible. Unfortunately, though predictably, this tactic didn't work, and one of the skinheads bowled over to me and started talking to me in German. He also became far too tactile with me too quickly, slapping me on the shoulders and patting me on the head in a very annoying fashion, before any kind of rapport or contact had been built, and thus being hugely annoying. The most comical thing was that, although he was terrible at darts, he kept touching me to get my attention when it was his go, as if to say, "watch this, I'm going to get a treble twenty" and then he would throw the dart and get a four, readjust, aim, throw, and get a double one. Readjust, miss the board completely, then get worryingly angry and kick the board before coming and thrusting himself next to me and trying to reestablish a line of communication. I obviously wasn't making it easier by speaking any Polish to him, but it didn't discourage his beery lurches in my direction in an aggressively friendly manner. This went on for an hour or so, during which time he actually bought me two beers, though it was very difficult for me to leave because every time I tried to do so, he would virtually block my way and insist on me staying. Eventually, he lurched out of the door in the direction of an all-night vodka bar, and I was left in peace, though considerably drunker than when I arrived. I staggered home and to bed. It was raining again.





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Part 1/4: Swinoujscie to Dzwinów