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The great eastern European road trip, part six: Poland

The great eastern European road trip, part six: Poland

The last leg of our 5,000-mile European tour started with a long drive north. There was a European migration crisis in progress, but at the Slovak border deep in the Tatra mountains - surely one of the prettiest in Europe - there were just lines of parked Polish cars, their occupants busy buying cheap beer on the Slovak side. Despite TV scenes of a crowded continent under siege, we had come away with the recurring impression of empty spaces: the pine forests of northern Greece, the vast uninhabited swathes of the Bulgarian Rhodope mountains and now, Poland's forests. North of Krakow, we wandered off into those forests along smaller roads, eventually finding a good hotel near Ogrodzieniec castle, one of a clutch of spectacular fortifications in the area. Next day, we continued north to the coast. The only time I'd swum in the Baltic, the water had been at precisely 0C and I was hoping to find it warmer. Poland has, effectively, one beach - a broad white strand that runs east for hundreds of kilometres from the German border. We stayed in Ko?obrzeg, a seaside place with an old town and port, a scurf of more-or-less tatty concrete blocks of flats and some chi-chi spa hotels. "Bournemouth-on-borscht," said my wife Sophie when we arrived in rain. But next day, in glorious sunshine, she revised her opinion. It was not Bournemouth, but neither was it borscht - we couldn't see anything but pizza on offer. Ko?obrzeg beach was busy, backed by souvenir stands and cafes, but we wanted empty spaces and nature, so set off east. We had barely left town, however, when I spotted something quite different: an old military camp packed with ex-Soviet equipment for sale. I was in heaven. T-67 tanks, Gaz jeeps, massive old Zil lorries, plus a hangar full of the weird and wonderful smaller stuff: weapons, uniforms and insignia. I was bargaining hard for a second world war vintage amphibious landing craft when Sophie dragged me away (it's just out of town on Highway 11, if you're interested). The coast road rarely gives sight of the sea: it sticks to the forest, and often heads into the hinterland. We stuck to our task, exploring every lane that led beachwards, parking wherever we found a handful of cars and tramping through soft-footed pines to the beach. At Ustronie Morskie, we discovered a good cafe in a stilted cabin over the breakers with views of endless sand, colourfully chequered by windbreaks - essential here. I chatted to a lifeguard. "It's a short summer season," he said. "We get lots of Germans, but you're the first British I've met." And the water? "Between 9C and 20C. Depends on the wind. Today 14C." There was, he agreed, amber to be found on the beach. "But you need to be here during storms, when it gets washed up - October is best." Tides? Midges? Mosquitoes? He shook his head. "Almost none." For a few weeks then, for those of us who don't like extreme heat or get itchy at the whine of a mozzie, this place is heaven-sent. Don't expect bags of style, however: we lunched on pizza in the village of Sarbinowo, having failed to find anything else. It was freshly baked, but still, it was pizza, and what we wanted was traditional Polish cooking. This coast is scattered with places where the beach becomes a narrow spit, threaded by pines and squeezed between the sea and a lake. Dziwnow in the west near the German border is one; there is another at Dzwirzyno a few kilometres west of Ko?obrzeg. They all have something a little magical - the extra light, plus the option of canoeing past dense reedbeds then picnicking where there is a clearing. We still had not found what we wanted, but a few miles east, near the village of ?azy, we spotted a single car parked in the forest beside the beginnings of a narrow sandy footpath. A short walk away we found a solitary windbreak on a long expanse of warm fine sand that whistled gently when walked upon. The water was cool, but not cold, enjoyable as long as you kept moving. Later, a few strollers watched in puzzlement as we played cricket with pine cones and foraged sticks. One man joined in, but we struggled to explain the rules. Why did we shout "six!" when it went in the sea? At sunset we drove back towards Ko?obrzeg, some of us determined to starve rather than eat pizza. Near the old port, with its impressive lighthouse, we finally discovered some Polish cuisine in Cafe Winogranami: golonka (pork knuckle), žurek (sour bread soup) and sledz (herring in oil). On another evening, we explored the delights of pierogi (Polish dumplings) and gol?bki (cabbage rolls). We had arrived at the Baltic coast via a marathon exploration of central Europe and the Balkans, but now we turned for home, breaking our journey in Osnabruck - a small German city well-positioned for overnights between Poland and Zeebrugge. It had been a long, and memorable journey and one I would highly recommend. We'd learned the cyrillic alphabet (essential for Bulgaria), a few dozen words in as many languages, tasted delights such as lacror (Albania) and trivarica (Croatia), slept under the stars, ridden in hay carts, explored lost communist monuments (the Buzludzha in Bulgaria) and seen a thousand places where we would like to have lingered longer. We had been apprehensive about driving through places like Albania, but had found nothing but kindness. Over the course of the six weeks, we had met people who talked of further places, too - Kosovo, Ukraine and Moldova - with affection and without mentioning the usual tales of woe. Our horizons had expanded and internal barriers had come down. What more can you ask from travel?

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