Dr Karl won a prestigious Ig Nobel award in 2002 for his work on the colour of belly button fluff. He is a wise man, but also academically gifted to a level that would be at the very end of any bell curve you could draw. He now lives in Australia, where he writes books and presents programs about science, some of which accompany us as podcast downloads on our journey. I often think about a saying of his, ” It is never too late to have a happy childhood “. Born in 1948, his real name is Karl Kruszelnicki, the son of Polish Jews who were both Holocaust survivors.
The history of Poland, is one of constantly being in the wrong place as invasion came from first East and then West. After just ten minutes on the WWW, we have found that where we are staying at the moment has been part of four different countries in well under 1,000 years. It has required huge courage and intelligence to prosper with history against you like this. But, it is a place that is on the up. New homes are being built in almost every small village, and business looks prosperous enough when viewed from the leather saddle of a passing touring bike.
A more perfectly uniform grey day, it would be impossible to imagine. We set out from Punsk into a lumpy landscape that is forcing us to play up and back down through the gears. We know it has shape and contour, but today there is absolutely no contrast to the light. It is just 13’c, and looks like it will stay that way all day. It is beautiful in the understated way that the Scottish Borders is. We take the 651 to Goldap and are on the smoothest road surface that either of us can remember for weeks and possibly months.
Poland, during the time of communism, was even poorer than East Germany and had even less investment. Which probably accounts for the story behind a German joke – . ‘ God, with some time on his hands, is flying across the countryside. He has decided that it has been a while since he unleashed an earth quake. Down he goes, low over Poland to begin. But he sees destruction and roads with terrible holes and in such a mess. ‘ I must be getting forgetful, looks like I did this place already ‘.
We are riding south, forced down by the border with Russia that is just off to our right. For the first time in what may be 2,000 km we are doing sustained climbs and I am up out of the saddle. Near the town of Bolcie, there is a field with tree lined hedges that bound Poland, Russia and Lithuania. After few or no signs to help us all through the Baltic states, there is suddenly a rash of them. One indicates the Baltic cycleway, which like us has been forced around this pocket of Russia and away from the coast.
The first big flock of Cranes are flying to our right. They make a noise similar to a goose, but with more than a hint of rusty hinge as well. At up to 6 kg, they are Europe’s heaviest bird. They are a substantial ball of big grey feathers. Back in Sweden we came across a pair and young in a forest. Now, they are on their way south and will come together in huge flocks that we hope to see further west.
It has not really got light all day. But despite that, it has been a good ride on smooth roads. Do you know what, I think I could have done today on my best road bike, even with my light wheels. At the town of Dubeninki it is 12’c and by Goldap you probably should have lights on. Though just 3.00 pm, it feels like 8.00, and we decide we have done enough for the day and go in search of cheap accommodation. Willpower has evaporated with the onset of rain that is getting heavier and more purposeful by the minute. Sometimes it is blindingly obvious why bike touring is not more popular.
The forecast was for more grey weather and rain. So, waking to perfect weather and bright sun, is a joyous bonus. Within a hundred meters of setting out, we have more cause for celebration as the trip computer turns to 9,000km for Europe. Much of this has been on rough roads, bike paths and towpaths making every kilometre just that little bit harder. No wonder we are deeply tired at the moment.
We pick up the 650, and head south into a bright sun and clear sky. Where, yesterday was without tone or contour, today the hills have both form and shadow. It is just 16’c, but feels so much better as we ride down another avenue of trees. This time they are Lime trees arranged in architectural precision. Elsewhere it has been Oaks or Sycamore, with few kilometres done without some time spent under the canopy of trees. It feels, we will ride from one side of Poland to the other, constantly in an avenue of trees or through forests.
We camp near the town of Wegorzewo, close enough to hear a small river that runs into the lake. It is all rather calm and, as ever, we have our best sleep and comfiest night in our tent. Better still, we wake to blue skyies when there should be rain. Hurrah once again. We had thought that we heard thunder of an approaching storm in the evening. Within a km, we pass an Artillery School. It is a big place and they must have been responsible for the bangs and crashes, doing homework on the range.
There are hundreds and hundreds of hectares of newly ploughed land to either side of the road. After a damp night, the smell of the soil is rising on the heat of the day. It is an overpowering smell that comes from everywhere and fills every cubic metre of air to the brim. We are following the gps towards ‘ The Wolf’s Lair ‘. This was Hitler’s command post for the Eastern front, and where he spent most of the war.
It is also the place where in 1944, an assassination attempt was made on him ( The film Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise portrays the attempt ). As we get near to the end of the purple line of our gps route, we are yet to come across any signs for the place. There have been the occasional sign pointing off to one of the many smaller bunkers for the last two days and we are wondering if we have got something wrong. Then we take the last turn and there is a big sign and the remains of the huge complex.
The scale is huge. The feeling of total evil is complete in every detail. I walk around taking photographs, treating it as a landscape and rock face. It is unquestionably beautiful as an object now. I remember a program by Stephen Fry on the subject, ‘ If you had a time machine, would you be morally bound to travel back in time and kill Hitler? ‘. He argued that the decision is not clear cut as Hitler had sown the seeds of his own downfall. Someone else may not have had those failings. 5,000 were executed in response to the attempt on Hitlers life.
We go on into town, with a bank of dark cloud beginning to fill the horizon and a headwind picking up. We are going to camp wild, and buy milk, bananas and water. It is obvious that our good fortune is going to run out and it will rain any minute. It comes quicker than we expect, and we head for a track into fields. It is not a great choice, but we have no option. We push the bikes to the side of a muddy field, making for flat land. The tyres are half rolling, half skidding and becoming caked in mud. It is like walking through sticky toffee pudding. We hide from the rain under trees. It is heavy and I am cold and starting to shake. Esther gets out the groundsheet and we pull it around us.
We get the tent up and are snug enough in what turns out to be a night of heavy rain and high winds. The mud wants to get into and on everything as we try to pack in the morning. If you were around to watch a first division football match in the 70’s, then you will remember mud like this. From November to late March the following year, every game was played in mud like this. The English game never learned to pass, never got the beautiful game, never got finesse. We pushed the bikes across the field in the morning, mud peeling off the wheels as the tyres passed the brake calipers. They weighed a 1,000 kg or more. Within 400m there is a hotel.
We turn left, onto the 593 and are sharing the route with the Polish section of the Camino Polaco and the Baltic Cycleway. It is 1.00pm and we are surprisingly high – 340m as we get to the town of Lutry where we take a right to run along the lake. This is all rather nice and the bikes are becoming lighter as mud dries and falls off.
It is a Sunday, and people are walking dressed in their finest clothes. For most of the women this means very high heels for the quite long walk to church. At the small village of Kikity we are at a shop where opposite a small chapel is open for the service. It is smaller than a two car garage and the late comers spill out onto the street. It is full of earnest singing and prayer. As we have travelled west, the number of roadside shrines is increasing. Even a small village may now have half a dozen. Some elaborate, whilst many are less so.
590m of climb at the end of the day, and we also go trough 50,000m of climbing total for Europe. We take a cheap hotel to celebrate and try to clean mud off. We are just outside Dobre Miasto and although it is Sunday, the hotel has two big parties. It could be a wedding, birthday or confirmation, we have no idea. What is beyond question is the amount of food that has been left on the tables. It is torture to walk past and know it will feed the local pigs at best.
Out onto the 530 with blue sky, fluffy white clouds and the usual swine of a headwind. No matter which compass point we ride, it is in our faces. We take a very minor right turn as the 530 has more heavy trucks than the nerves can take on a road so narrow. The little road goes up and down, even needing to throw in a couple of switch backs to gain hight. It is undeniably beautiful once again. Forests of Birch and Hazel, heavy with the smell of fungi come, go and come again. We pass happy cows in the village of Brzydows that sit and watch us pass with just as much curiosity as every villager, in every village in Poland so far.