Monday, May 19, 2014

Masuria

Ukiel campground in Olsztyn
Of course I left the lovely campground late, but I don't have a bench and a table plus a nice lake view every morning. And then I had to pass through Olsztyn again which of course called for a stop to use the free wifi in town. It was way past noon when I finally was in my way - and ended up cycling very late. I found a brilliant campsite hidden in the forest but unfortunately I was not the only one to find it brilliant. I was just sitting down in my tent to eat dinner (steamed brokoly with olive oil and lemon juice plus garlic bread) when something big came thrashing through the undergrowth - a wild pig. I tried the usual clapping to chase it away but it did not help. The huge pig was circling my tent and grunting loudly. Maybe it wanted part of my dinner? Before it could invite itself I resorted to harsher methods: banging my pots loudly finally made the pig run away.

Next day was a busy sightseeing day with two interesting, but very contrasting sights. First was the pilgrimage church of Swieta Liepka (Schönerlinde), a Baroque gem. The church is strangely enough hidden in a valley - and you only see it once you are almost in front of it. But it was built at the site of various presumed miracles. More and more pilgrims came to visit the site and the churches built here became bigger and bigger to house the masses. Today it's mostly tourists in buses who come to visit and hear the spectacular organ, another Baroque gem with moving statues: When the music is playing angels are swinging trumpets, stars are rotating, bells are ringing and the Virgin Mary is gracefully nodding her head. All very tacky - and very sweet. I liked it so much that I stayed for two of the hourly concerts. If the church had not been so cold I would have stayed for a third one....

But another, totally different sight was on the schedule today: Hitler's headquarter, the Wolf's Lair - the very place where Stauffenberg tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944. When the Germans had to retreat at the end of the war they tried to blow up the whole complex but the various bunkers were too massive. The whole place had a bizarre feeling now. The buildings are half demolished and mostly overgrown. Huge signs in four languages warn you to go inside because the buildings might collapse but everyone does nonetheless. The old bunkers cover a vast area and a big part has been fenced off by a private company. They charge admission, run a restaurant and hotel in the former officers' mess and even a small campground in the complex. They have created well marked hiking trails - but unfortunately very little historical information is given. Instead you can book Jeep tours or buy souvenirs. As it was raining and off season I had the whole complex almost all to myself which felt even more bizarre. On the pragmatic side I was delighted to see that the toilet complex included a free hot shower - of which I took advantage, of course.

My German cycling guide totally led me astray in the evening. I ended up on almost impassable dirt roads but at least I found a good campsite. After I had wriggled my way out of a labyrinth of forest roads next morning more weird sightseeing was scheduled. First an abandoned canal project which should connect the Baltic Sea with the Masurian lakes. The Germans had started the project in 1914 but had not finished it at the end of WW II. Now it is even weirder than the Wolf's Lair. Apparently the unfinished locks belong to nobody, but the farmers charge you for parking - even bicycles! One lock has been turned into an adventure park where you can climb up the concrete lock walls. You can walk on rope bridges over the lock - only bungee jumping is still missing....

The next sightseeing event was another German remnant but a much earlier one. Back in the 19th century a German nobleman built a pyramid as a mausoleum for himself and his family - right into the middle of nowhere in the mosquito infested Masurian swamp. The cosmic radiation was said to be best here...

After another quiet night in the vast Masurian forests I could have my own little celebration: I had completed my first 1000 km - only about 7000 more to come. I was now cycling along the Russian border but strangely no Russian cars where to be seen. A lot of money is being invested in this area: Roads are being improved complete with picture perfect bike paths. Unfortunately all this construction work comes with one big problem for cyclists: when only one road side is passable traffic is regulated with traffic lights. But the "green" phase is not long enough for a cyclist to race through the construction area so more than once I was suddenly confronted with  oncoming traffic and had to rescue myself into the ditch.

I had expected this region at the Russian border to be poor and neglected but the contrary is true. This is prosperous farmland and a lot of money is invested in improving the infrastructure.

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