On the roads again, red, yellow and white

8. August 2014 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

I’m sitting on my single bed in a small hotel room in the Polish town of Nidzica, which once ran under the German name of Neidenberg when it belonged to Prussia. The bedsheets and cover are yellow, and so are the walls and curtains, helping to hide the otherwise slightly shabby second impression. The room wasn’t cleaned properly, but I failed to notice that when the old receptionist/owner showed it to me; I was glad enough to have found something in this place which is clearly off the even domestic tourist paths. There had been thunder rolling around the skies at six this morning, and now, at nine, the rain is coming down in streams. I’m stalled for the moment, lacking the courage to throw myself onto the road and into the watery wake of the 40-ton trucks that ply their way from Lithuania to Warsaw. Instead I listen to Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner’s melancholy tunes and let the grey mood engulf me.

The plan was – and still is – to link up the end of the cycling trip my friend Reto and I took in 2011, from Riga to Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave just north of the Polish border, with the Danube route we cycled many years ago, at a time when I wasn’t yet dreaming of biking around Europe through 80 language regions. I didn’t feel this time like getting another Russian visa, so an elegant gap will remain on my torn European map that hangs on the wall at home, decorated with lots of photos and memorabilia.

After a 24-hour train journey – the City Night Line to Berlin, then two express trains through Szczecin, Gdansk and Elblag, making me feel the expanse of this Polish land – I arrived in Gizycko, a provincial resort town that sits between two Mazurian lakes. It was a good starting point to get into the swing again: no hills to speak of, temperatures moderate for August and well-paved roads. I started to feel the disadvantages only slowly: the roads that show red on the map are really too busy for relaxed cycling and too narrow for comfort, or rather just wide enough for some impatient drivers to believe they can pass me despite simultaneous oncoming traffic. The yellow ones are mostly okay, but detours are often necessary to reach a certain place. Then there are some white roadlets, often single track with broken shoulders and large potholes. If they don’t turn out to be dead ends, they’re just fine, taking you truly to the sticks. More often than not, after they have reached the tiny hamlet at the end of the woods, they turn into sand tracks, though. It is generally a sandy soil from which the pine trees and birches grow here, but navigating these tracks requires an acrobat’s talent. Unless the ground is wet and the sand quite solid, the wheels tend to get buried or swerve this way or another. In any case, it can be slow going.

Yesterday I avoided the sand pistes as much as possible and covered 105 km at a good clip of 21 km/h on average. There are endless forests with glimpses of reedy swamps and quiet dark lakes. The landscapes have a decidedly Nordic feel to them, and the wooden cabins would remind me a lot of Latvia, but there are also many red brick farm buildings and churches. Here in Nidzica, a huge castle, also red brick, sits on top of the town, and I would have been able to get a hotel room for 30€ up there if I hadn’t plumped for my shabby little Hotel Kaminski.

Until this morning, I’d been lucky with the weather, the thunderstorms lurking around the edges of the day. Yet late on Wednesday, one of them made me stop at a simple inn in the middle of nowhere, with very friendly hosts who served me a hearty meal and pointed out with mime and gestures the weather forecast on the TV – yes, today the bleary outlook has caught up with me. Maybe I should use the time to learn a few Polish expressions. Unprepared as I was for this trip after the stressful times with my move, I note with some dismay at myself that obviously here in the countryside very few people speak foreign languages. Surprise, surprise, I’m the only tourist far and wide, at least on a bike. I’d be a fool to compare it with the Balkans and its tourist and remigration phenomena. I did read half of a history book about Mazuria, and can fully understand that there is no huge desire to engage with German and the Germans. Yet, the entanglements are intricate, as nearly everywhere. Several of the towns such as Nidzica voted to remain with Prussia after WWI, and the nationalist turn could be a passing phenomenon, witness the Polish-Lithuanian wedding the preparations which were going on as I was having dinner in the courtyard of the castle last night. I’d need a few more days to start reading the cultural signs hidden from the time-pressed traveller.

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