When you have a wife originally from Poland, it goes without saying you’ll be getting to know the country. Before I met my wife Martyna I had never visited Poland, and frankly didn’t know a great deal about it other than the usual cliches – this changed fairly quickly one weekend in August 2015.
A couple of years on from what was my first visit, I can claim to know and understand a little more of Polish culture, even if my ability to pronounce more than a handful of words in Polish remains abysmal. Probably what’s taken the biggest leap forward is my tolerance to vodka, but that’s another story…
Back to my first trip. A free weekend had opened up in my calendar, and I was alone in Nuremberg as my (at the time) girlfriend was holidaying with her family on the Baltic coast of Poland. It was their traditional summer retreat, and in common with many Polish families they have a small plot of land not far from the beach which can be used for camping, a static caravan, or construction of a cabin. All I knew at the time was that it was in a small seaside village called Debki, and that according to Google Maps it was 950km and about 10 hours away by car……
What to do with a spare weekend?
Clearly the obvious choice when you have 48 hours free is not to drive for 20 hours and 2000km. But what the hell, I’m nothing if not spontaneous, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to see my girlfriend. Once I’d confirmed the plans with her late Wednesday, I set about making a few preparations – I decided to rent a car for the trip given the mileage (and the fact I could get a great rate for the weekend on a big diesel car).
I then set about planning a route – although the segment thorugh Germany via Berlin to Szczecin on the border was all autobahn and pretty straightforward, the rest of the distance through Poland looked decidedly slower with almost no dual carriageway for well over 300km. I could see that the time it would take me was going to be highly traffic dependent, and probably not helped by the fact it’d already be dark.
Setting Off for Poland and the German Autobahn
I picked up the car from the local Hertz office (conveniently located just a couple of km away from my house) in Nuremberg. I’d decided to travel light, and so cycled there with a rucksack stuffed full of clothes for the weekend (I had been informed old clothes would be best…!). I was handed the keys to an Opel Mokka, in the boot of which I just about managed to squeeze my bike with both wheels removed. I set off just before 3, a little later than planned but still hoping to arrive sometime around midnight.
The traffic around Nuremberg was the normal Friday crawl, but once on the A9 heading toward Berlin things loosened up and I was able to make pretty good time. My Mokka drove surprisingly well for an SUV, and I was actually enjoying the drive – it felt pretty powerful even if not quite up to the 250km/h speed of the Audi and Mercedes tanks that roared past in the overtaking lane. As I approached Berlin though the traffic slowed markedly, and I started to toy with the plans for “which way round the A10 ring road” I should drive.
Being a map addict, I had 3 separate satnav’s on the go – a Garmin, the built-in unit in the car, and also google maps directions. Maybe a bit excessive, but I’m a real stickler for not making a bad call on traffic conditions. Or just sad – one of those. I chose clockwise and although the next 30 minutes passed uneventfully, as I neared the junction where I’d need to turn left and start heading north east toward the Polish border I started getting traffic warnings. Not wanting to lose time, I quickly devised a route through the pleasant forested outer suburbs of Northern Berlin, and then found my way onto the A11 having only lost a few minutes
Ice Cream Stop
I knew I’d need to make a stop at some point, and I was also keen to fill up the tank so I could make it straight through Poland without having to stop. I chose Buckowee Ost since it was pretty much the only option, and after well over four hours and 500km on the road I needed a rest. I’d bought some snacks to nibble on en-route, but decided an ice-cream was in order to keep the energy up. Given the location there was no home-made ice-cream on offer, but a King Cone chocolate sort of did the job and certainly woke me up a bit. Bizarrely, this rest stop featured a small man-made hillock that one could walk up for a view of…..the autobahn. I did it anyway to stretch my legs. Not something I’ll need to to again.
A11 – the bumpy Autobahn to Poland
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was now travelling on one of the oldest autobahns in Germany. It was originally started in the 1930’s as a Reichsautobahn, and due to the relative remoteness of the region and low traffic levels on the Northern stretches was also one of the least maintained. What this meant I was about to find out:
A little way past the junction with the A20 heading North to Stralsund the tarmac ended, and the surface reverted to concrete slabs. Not just any concrete slabs, but seriously old and misaligned concrete slabs. My average speed dropped to about 80km/h, and the car jumped alarmingly as the tyres crossed the joins or cracks between the slabs – now I was really glad I’d booked a rental car (sorry Hertz). I could see on the opposite carriageway serious work underway to resurface the road, and I subsequently read the project was due to be complete within a year or so.
Nevertheless, as I subsequently read, I was actually travelling on the original road surface from 1935. Incredible that 80 years later this was still (just about) in service.
The end of the Autobahn, and my first taste of Poland
I passed the Polish border uneventfully, and then some miles north of Szczecin the (still rather bumpy) motorway ended and it was down to a two-lane only road. Although it was now nearing 8PM it was the first week of August, so the daylight remained and this definitely made the driving easier. With the reduction in speed I had a better chance to take in the surroundings, including the huge variety and number of small roadside “restauracje”.
What I also noticed was the huge proliferation of Zebra Crossings on what was seemingly a fast(ish) road – many of them with not much additional lighting or warning signs, and after slowing down for a few of them to check for pedestrians I soon noticed there was a queue forming behind me. I was clearly the only person on this road who was going to slow down for an old lady crossing the road, and if I wanted to blend in here I was going to have to keep my foot down….
A familiar landscape
I come from an island, and grew up very close to the sea – as a result the inland landscape of Bavaria feels somewhat different. Northern Germany, and as I was now finding out Northern Poland made me feel much more at home. Everything was a little more green, the trees a touch more wind gnarled, and the Polish landscape of fields separated with hedgerows and low rolling hills seemed quite familiar.
I was passing through numerous small villages and the occasional small town and it was in these that the differences to Western Europe were clearer. This was farming country, and other than Szczecin (now some distance behind me) there were no other major cities (or indeed highways) until Gdansk and Gdynia some 300km distant. Rather like the protruding parts of the British mainland with their lack of major infrastructure, this felt like a region that although beautiful, was a long way from where the money lives.
The final stretch
It was now past ten o’clock and dark as I passed through the only sizeable towns on this stretch – firstly Koszalin, and then on the new bypass around Slupsk. Although I had only about 100km now to travel, the Satnav was persistent in telling me I needed another two hours. Being ever the optimist I took the chance at a traffic light to fire off an SMS to say I would be about one more hour. Unfortunately with my sometimes dodgy German and in my haste, I managed to write I would be some more “hours”. Thankfully those waiting up for me realised what I meant eventually, no doubt pleased I wasn’t going to turn up at 2AM.
There seemed to be several possible routes to take to get to Debki from Slupsk – from here Northwards were no major roads, and once I’d selected a route and turned off the main road I realised why the Satnav thought I needed two hours. These were narrow, twisting, and unlit roads. A few times the road surface changed to very uneven cobbles – not just for a short stretch, but for what seemed like a good few kilometres. Despite this not being easy to drive on, it did have give me something of a back massage and the noise certainly kept the fatigue at bay.
I also learned my second Polish driving habit of the day – at all costs drive in the middle on such roads to avoid disappearing without trace in one of the potholes lining the verge. That became tricky when for the first time in a while headlights approached in the opposite direction, and I held my breath as we squeezed past each other between two gigantic trees – me at a crawl, and the other driver without having taken his foot from the gas or broken a sweat. Clearly a local….
Arrival in Debki
I’d received detailed instructions from Martyna on what to when I got to Debki (basically drive to the centre, find a specific hotel and then phone her). Being me I’d decided to ignore this, and to head straight there myself. Based on whatsapp messages I’d got an exact location for their plot, and having marked this on the map I was sure I could find it. I did have my doubts as I turned off the tarmac onto an unsignposted dirt road, and again started the fun game of dodge the potholes – 10 hours in I was ready for a beer.
I continued on for a couple of km and the mark on the map was getting closer despite my glacial progress along the road. My blue dot on the map was now right next to the marked location (in a field), so I stopped and realised just behind me was a gap in the hedge. I opened the window and could hear dogs barking (as I soon learned, this is the soundtrack to much of Poland) – this sounded positive as it at least signified civilization.
A Fireside Welcome to Poland
I reversed back and turned onto the side track. I soon saw I’d found the right place, as leading off the track were small driveways, cars, caravans and tents. I drove a little further and then saw Martyna’s car parked up. I pulled in, and saw Martyna and her family waiting for me. After the warm greetings, they told me I was the first person ever to find their “działka” (literally “plot of land”) without additional help. This was a good start I thought, being it was the first time I’d met Martyna’s parents…!
It’d taken me nearly 10 hours with only one stop to get here…by now I was pretty tired, but at the same time buzzing from being in a new place. I was guided straight to the campfire, which was still glowing nicely and helping stave off what was a very cold night for August. I was then introduced to the next chapter in my Polish induction: A table groaning under the weight of grilled meats, pickles, beer, schnapps and vodka.
The onslaught of food taught me one thing about future trips to Poland: go there hungry, because not only will you be plied with a LOT of food, it’s also delicious. And they’ll love you even more if you make sure to tell the chef it’s delicious!
As we sat round the fire munching on chicken and slurping beer, every few minutes someone would emerge from the darkness of the trees on the edge of the plot – clearly my arrival was provoking some interest with the neighbours. People arrived bearing more food and drinks, and perched themselves on a log keen to strike up conversation with me as the newcomer. I was now learning how important family, community and sharing was in Poland – I felt welcome, and I felt immediately at home here.
This weekend was my crash course in Poland. I wasn’t in a city with the familiarity that brings, I was deep in the sticks. In the next 36 hours I was going to learn a lot more including what Lody and Ryba were, how cold the Baltic sea can really be in August, but also how friendly and welcoming the Polish people can be.
To be continued……..