A week on the Baltic

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Poland  ,
Wednesday, July 13, 2005

We decided to stick around in Poland for the summer and travel, get to know the country we're calling home for now. Three of our friends from here are travelling with us for a bit, and Caitlin is arriving from London to travel with us for a week. The first stop on our trip is Gdansk.

The two of us arrived in Gdansk at 9pm, and found our hostel at about 11:30. There's nothing like arriving in a city in the dark and getting completely lost for 3 hours. It turned out to be a 10 minute bus ride from the train station, but nobody knew where this street was. Bus drivers would tell us they'd let us know when to get off and then look frantically at maps as they drove and finally apologize and let us off on random dark street corners. Anyway, the hostel "Villa Elena" turned out to be a total dump, but for 15zl a night ($6-7) we'll sleep anywhere, I guess.

The next day we checked out the old town before picking Caitlin up from the airport. The old town is amazing. There is one really long street that is lined with historic buildings, churches and monuments, and there's always something going on. Lots of mimes, people on stilts and other performers and one evening we got to watch a modern ballet production performed for free on the street.

Gdansk has a really interesting history. It has been Polish, Prussian and German, it was ruled by the Teutonic Knights (a German order of fighting monks, for those who don't know), and it was a free city between the wars. Gaining control of Gdansk (aka Danzig) was Hitler's excuse for starting WWII, and it was here where the first shots of the war were fired, at Westerplatte and the Polish post office. We had a chance to visit Westerplatte, but unfortunately didn't make it to the post office. Westerplatte is where Polish troops defended against a German battleship for over a week, and the old ammunition building is still there, in ruins. The old town was almost entirely destroyed in 1945, but was meticulously rebuilt in the next two decades. This was also a place of anti-government demonstrations in 1970 and 80 that led to the formation of 'Solidarity,' an independent trade union which helped bring down the communist government in Poland. (By the way, we're not experts, so correct us if we're wrong on any of this.)

It was awesome to see Caitlin, and strangely, it didn't seem strange at all that she was here. We had a really great time with her, and I'm glad she got to meet our friends and kind of see where we're living. The rest of our travelling companions arrived the next day. They are Monika, Monika and Adam. The Monikas are Polish, and Adam is American, and they were all teachers with us in Debica. The arrival of our friends caused mass confusion at our hostel. They have rooms for 2, 4 and 5, and somehow seem to have never encountered the situation where people arrive in 3 or 6. Finally they decided to move us to the basement, where there were 4 rooms, including a kitchen, and about 9 beds total. They hadn't been able to put me and Greg there the first night because it was occupied by a disgruntled alcoholic, but they managed to get him out for the group. It did take some work to get his disgusting soup, dishes, and general filth out of there, but it was done. At least in the kitchen... they didn't clean the bathroom until we'd been there a few days.

We stayed at the Villa for over a week, using it as a base for day trips around the area. The first trip was to Sopot, a popular resort town very nearby. It's a nice city with a small town feel, and one long tourist street that leads to the beach. Greg, Adam and Monia lay on the beach, while Caitlin, Monika and I explored the town. I didn't really need to sit and watch old men in speedos all afternoon, but I guess they did. There was a Salvador Dali exhibit at a local gallery so later that day we checked it out. He's one freaky weirdo and the Monikas were not impressed, but we really enjoyed it.
The one major downfall of travelling in a group is finding a place to eat. That evening I swear it took an hour to find a restaurant that was suitable to all of us. We found one place that looked really promising, except they hardly had anything on their menu. We discovered that they'd just opened the restaurant the day before, but somehow hadn't figured out that they should have bought their food first... so we moved on. By the end of the week we dreaded mealtime, but I guess if that's the biggest problem we encountered we did pretty well.

The next day we went to Hel. We had been excited about this for quite some time, and many, many jokes were made. We were maybe too excited about purchasing one way tickets to Hel, but in our opinion, the jokes never got old. Hel is a town at the end of a peninsula, also called Hel. The train ride took about 2 hours, but it was really beautiful. You could see the Baltic sea from both sides of the train. Monia and Adam headed home early while the rest of us explored the town. We climbed a lighthouse and got a great view of the sea and peninsula, and then walked along the beach. Beaches during the day are so hot and crowded, but most of the tourists had left to get dinner and the sun was lower in the sky. It was really nice. The beach had ads all over it, so we walked until the ads and the people were behind us. This was one of the nights we really wished we had a tent, and could just pitch it and stay there. We didn't even have our bathing suits... But it was fun all the same. The unusual thing about the beach was that the sand squeaked under our feet as we walked... it took a few minutes for us to realize we weren't nuts.

The next day Adam and Monia went to Sopot to lie on the beach, while we went with Monika and Caitlin to Malbork. Malbork is a huge castle that was founded by the Teutonic Knights, and later became the headquarters for the Grand-master of the order. We were pissed off to find out we couldn't go in on our own, we had to pay lots of money to go with a guide. We managed to catch up to an English speaking guide and we were glad in the end. Our guide was awesome. He was a well dressed guy in his late 20's or early 30's, with a short ponytail. He knew so much about the castle, which was good because we learned some pretty random interesting things, but it was a bit of an information overload. Other groups kept passing ours, and by the end I don't think we were even listening. The castle was amazing. It had been destroyed a couple times, the most recent being WWII when the Germans were defending it against Polish and Soviet troops. It has been almost totally rebuilt, and was still being rebuilt while we were there. Across the river from the castle there was a heavy metal concert, so every second person we passed outside the castle was wearing black. We saw one guy walking with his girlfriend wearing nothing but worn out black briefs and big black boots. As they passed us Monika said the girl was saying "please put your clothes back on." As we were leaving the castle complex we saw our guide again. I did a double take, and no one else even recognized him since he was dressed entirely in black with a 'vader' shirt on (a polish metal band). It made our day.

On the train from Krakow to Gdansk at the beginning of our trip we met a high-school student from Gdynia named Chris who offered to show us around his city. We called him from Gdansk and he agreed to meet up with us. Gdynia is a port near Gdansk that was built during the inter-war period because Poland had lost access to the sea since Gdansk was then a free city. People don't talk much about Gdynia as a tourist destination, since it's entirely modern, but our trip to Gdansk was one of our favourite days, thanks to Chris. He knew all the secret spots to go. The beach there was really nice, exactly the kind of beach we were looking for, right under forested cliffs. It wasn't very busy either, since most of the tourists were in Sopot. The forests behind the beach hid bunkers and guns from WWII. It was slightly surreal, but really interesting. Monika and Chris went through a door underneath one of the big guns and were feeling their way through the darkness. Monika lit her lighter just in time to see a big hole in the floor in front of her, thankfully. We saw one bunker that had fallen down a cliff, from being bombed during the war, or else from erosion afterwards.

Later he took us up to a hill to climb a condemned view tower (first and last time, I promise, mom). Many steps were missing because people had carried them off for firewood, and the floor at the top had huge gaps in it. We climbed it and stayed long enough to get a good view of the port, and then climbed down. It was an amazing view though. Gdynia is a really nice city. From the tower it looked like a city had just grown up through the forest, there were so many trees. It was nice to have a day where someone else was making all the decisions. Chris was a taskmaster though. We barely finished one thing and he already had another place in mind. We were completely exhausted at the end of the day from walking all over the city, but I think those are the best days.

Caitlin left the next day, which was sad. It felt like she'd been here forever, but also like she'd just arrived. The day after that we headed out again too.
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