Friday 14 May 2021

Europe Diagonal: Interlude in Greece

Back in my home base in Berlin I have been deliberating trail options. Not too many countries are open without quarantine and not even all of these are interesting to me as a hiker. And after miscalculating my chances of a straight thruhike to Finland I was now looking for a "safe" option - which appeared in the form of Greece! The country announced complete opening to tourists starting from May 15th - no quarantine, open hotels, open museums and no travel restrictions - only a PCR test required. 

Still my planning didn't first work out. I booked a cheap flight to Crete, which was cancelled only two days later ... After much deliberation I booked another, not quite so cheap flight. 

I had also hoped to be able to get at least my first Corona vaccination during my stay in Germany - but no such luck. And with vaccines being scarce but plenty of people fighting to get it the situation will not improve too soon. But as soon as I am able to scare a vaccination date I will return to Germany - as much as I hate flying back and forth. But this crazy Corona year requires special measures. I will not be able to do one long straight thruhike, but at least I can do several shorter hikes. 

The E4 in Crete seems to be perfect for this weird situation. First of all it is on my route "Europe Diagonal" from Ireland to Greece. The length of the E4 in Crete is around 500 kilometers and can easily be extended into Peloponnes and Northern Greece, also on my route. I'll start at the Eastern terminus of the E4 in Crete and keep going until the vaccination calls me back to Germany.

I am really looking forward to this hike because of two reasons: Although I have travelled extensively all over the world, I have never been in Greece. And after having hiked through snow storms for six weeks in Poland I am ready for some warm weather now!

Thursday 13 May 2021

Poland: Goldap to Lithuanian border

The Pusza Romincka (Rominter Heide) is a huge forest, now partly in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and partly in Poland. The border is only marked by a couple of boundary stones - and I stayed clear of it! German emperor Wilhelm II used to hunt here - as did Hermann Göring. I found this withered memorial in the middle of a swampy forest, the inscription says that His Majesty Emporer Wilhelm II shot a buck here in 1908. 

When I reached my prebooked room in a agroturystyka that evening a landrover stopped by me and a camouflage clad guy waved me over. I took him for the landlord but soon discovered that this was Polish border patrol! "Documentation!" I was asked and his female partner tried to check my ID while I was explaining in English what I was doing here. They did not believe me it seemed but still let me go. At least they did not take me for a an alcohol or cigarette smuggler. My room in the agroturystyka cost my just 15 Euro but could have been a 4 star hotel. Needless to say I was the only guest.

It was still snowing every day now end of April and I ditched camping. Accommodation was plentiful and cheap, mainly because of the Green Velo, a popular bike route through Eastern Poland. 
I passed the former monastery of Wigry, founded by the Camaldoli order - a place in Italy that I had visited just the year before. Now hotel guests live in the fomer hermit's cells. 
I discovered former Russian Orthodox churches and a Jewish cemetery - this area has housed so many now forgotten people and cultures. 
I was very lucky with my second last accommodation. The landlady, eight month pregnant, spoke fluent English because she had worked in the UK before. When I left after a hearty breakfast, Joana gave me her private cell phone number - just in case. She must have had foresight! 
When I reached my final destination at the Lithuanian border, the pilgrimage town of Sejny the famous church was already closed. I had made a reservation at the only hotel in town via, but when I arrived the place was all locked up.

I called the phone number on the confirmation but whoever answered the phone only spoke Polish - and just hung up on me. When I tried to call again - no one picked up the phone. Why bother with an ignorant tourist! Never ever such a thing had happened to me before. When I reported this incident to after my trip, I was not even offered an excuse or given any compensation! My review was not published on their website. I have used for over a hundred of bookings - and am deeply disappointed now. They take your money - but don't help you when there is a problem. "We are not responsible", was there only answer to my written complaint ...
But luckily I had Joana's phone number. When I told her about my problem, she jumped into her car, picked me up and even gave me dinner! 
And now comes the sad ending of this hike ...

Due to Corona I was only allowed to cross into Lithuania with a negative test - and a seven day quarantine. Which is a long time for a country that I would traverse in 2,5 weeks. Plus the situation in all three Baltic countries was the same. I had decided to go back to Germany and do another hike in the meantime. 
But Poland was now considered a high-risk country in Germany which meant I could only come back with a negative Corona test. And as it turned out that was difficult to obtain in Poland. PCR tests were easy to find but very expensive. Antigene tests were accepted in Germany but rarely available in Poland. The closest test center was in Bialystok - and Joana was going there to have a check up of her pregnancy. She and her Bulgarian husband took me directly to the test center and even inquired for me if they offered the right test. I still had to wait 2,5 hours in the cold before it was my turn. I have never seen so much inefficiency as in the test center ... After a short sightseeing tour through Bialystok I took the train back to Berlin where I also had to go into quarantine - but only for five days which are tolerable when you have Wifi and a laptop to work with. I hope to be able to continue towards Finland later this summer!

Poland: Across Masuria from Olsztyn to Goldap

Although Olsztyn (Allenstein) had survived WW II relatively undamaged, it was destroyed by the Soviet Army, the German population was displaced. Nowadays most of the old city has been beautifully restored and enjoyed my sightseeing trip through the Allenstein's brick Gothic churches. The city caters mostly for German tourists: When I came to close the cathedral's altar, the alarm system sounded in form of a prerecorded announcement: "Don't step into the altar area" in Polish and in German ...

Even hiking out of Olsztyn was a delight: The E11 follows the river Lina with plenty of scenic paths and rest areas. (Alas it was too cold to rest ...) In the tiny village of Barkweda I encountered a big poster of Napoleon. A quick internet research revealed that Napoleon fought a battle here against the Prussians and Russians to cross the river. Napoleon won. 

The next days were a historical delight. I walked through Dobre Miasto (Guttstadt) and Lidbark Warminski (Heilsberg), both former German towns. Most of the old houses have been destroyed, but both places still sport huge brick cathedrals which stick out of modern communist housing blocks in a bizarre way. Heilsberg had another surprise in form of an WW I (!) PoW cemetery. 

In the tiny village of Schmolainen the E11 made a strange long detour. I briefly thought of shortcutting it - and luckily I didn't! The trail took me to the former sommer residence of the bishop of Ermland. After 1945 the former castle was used as an agricultural school, but is now being restored to its former glory. It is set in the middle of a beautiful park that could be the film set for a fairy tale movie. Old trees, overgrown hedges, small path and thick walls that can only be crosses through theses wrought-iron gates. I could have wandered around much longer but several stray dogs decided to chase me out of their domain ...

Cloister of Stoczek monastery
87% of Polish people are Catholic nowadays. Therefore it does not come as a surprise that several pilgrimage sites are located along the route. I had never heard of Stoczek (Springborn) before and the huge monastery plus church looks a bit like a UFO in the middle of the namesake village with only 300 inhabitants. Wandering around the big complex I even came across a pilgrimage hostel with its doors wide open - but nobody there to check me in! Because I expected the hostel to be closed due to Corona I did not dare to check me in myself. After half an hour of knocking on every door but getting no answer I left the place and frustatredly decided to camp.
Something similar happened in Swietka Lipa (Heiligelinde), a baroque gem with a world famous organ. I came right on time for evening service and could recharge my phone. But due to Corona public toilets and the pilgrimage hostel were closed, due to night frost water fountains still turned off. Again I had to wander through endless corridors until I found a water tap. When I left with my refilled bottles a monk was just about to close the monastery gate - I slipped out in the very last minute.

I arrived in Ketzryn (Rastenburg) on a Sunday morning - ideal for recharging my phone again because now all the churches would be open. They were open indeed but masses were scheduled every hour and people were even standing outside to attend. No way I could sneak in and look for an electrical outlet. After trying my luck at several churches I arrived at the brick Gothic cathedral just between two services. While my electronic devices were recharging I discovered paintings of Luther and Melanchthon on the pulpit - in a Catholic church! An information board (in Polish and German) gave me the solution: The majority of the former German population had been Protestant, therefore this Catholic cathedral had been Protestant until 1945. 
Next was a very unholy place: Hitler's Wolf's Lair which has been turned into a sort of historical amusement park. I had already visited this place on my bike trip through Poland several years ago. Back then you could still play paintball in General Jodl's bunker ...

This time I just walked past but even outside the fenced in pay area there were plenty of bunkers to see. 
Next day took me to the dilapidated castle of Steinort, where one of the members of the July 20th, 1944 attempt had lived and been arrested. Despite its historical importance the place is about to collapse and the park is completely overgrown. In front of the estate a huge modern marine overlooks Mamry, one of the biggest Masurian lakes. I recharged my phone in the public restrooms which were totally empty due to still freezing temperatures. 

Despite the cold this section along endless crystal clear lakes was a delight. This lake district is pretty flat but close to Goldap I passed a ski centre with several lifts! The highest "mountain" rose up to 274 meters ...
I had rented a holiday apartment in Goldap where the landlady greeted me with a bottle of champagne, fruit and cake! And that is not all: Next day she arrived at noon with a Schnitzel for lunch - for free! I most have looked very hungry. Because it was still so cold I went to the visitor information centre were the friendly English speaking staff made a dozen phone calls to find accommodation for me for the next section. 

Saturday 1 May 2021

Poland: Poznan to Olsztyn

 After Poznan I finally left the Camino and continued on hiking trails. This route had been a suggestion of accomplished Polish long-distance hiker Agnieska aka Zebra. Her goal is to hike all Polish long-distance trails - and therefore she and another Polish hiker friend joined me for the next section. Michal aka Shakespeare did not know who I was but immediately recognised me when I met him in the parking lot of the train station were Zebra was to arrive soon. There are not too many ultralight hikers around in Poland ... Before embarking we had a quick lunch consisting of all leftovers from Michal's kitchen. We then followed the blazes - and immediately ended in a bushwhack because the trail has not been maintained for decades ...

Although the landscape was still pretty flat and monotonous hiking was a lot better now because there was very littel pavement and mostly trail, even boardwalks around lakes! Plus we were mainly in forests. With two native speakers it was no problem to ask for water at houses because there were no good natural water sources. With lots of practice even I learnt the question "Can I please have some tap water" in Polish. We bought more food in a small supermarket and had a real hiker trash meeting in the parking lot. I almost felt like back in the US! 

Although Zebra and Shakespeare were constantly doing some stretching exercises we still made good progress. I was fantastic to have some thruhiker company and enjoyed these 2,5 days hiking with them tremendously. But they wanted to complete this specific hiking trail which continued to Pila whereas I was heading northeast towards Bydgoszcz. After I tearful goodbye we went our separate ways. 
I had to cross the very agricultural plains of river Netze where it was even hard to find a place to pee because there was no bush or tree. After one night camping on my own I was to have more company. Beata, a Polish pilgrim had invited me into her home for a night. Her invitation came right in time because I needed some stuff sent to me from Germany and I could use her address. On a Spanish Camino she had made friends with some Germans who follow me on social media. When they realised that my route passed almost directly at her home they asked her to invite me in. What a small world! I spent a wonderful evening with Beata and her husband who both speak excellent German and learnt a lot about Poland!

I spent a rest day in Bromberg (Bydgoszcz) because there was so much to see. As it was Easter I wanted to attend a mass. Due to Corona restrictions number of worshippers was restricted and people were even standing outside. When I found a church that still let me in I realized too late that is was locked during service! I had to listen to endless readings from the bible until I eventually realised there was an emergency exit where I could sneak out ...
When I left on my own I finally had to practice my new language skills and ask for water at a house. I mumbled my sentence - and the guy answered in perfect English: "What the heck are you doing here in the middle of nowhere?" He gave me not only water, but fruit and chocolate on top!

Next in a series of former German towns was beautifully restored Chelmno (Kulm) where the town hall looks like out of a picture book. The next day I followed the River Wisla (Weichsel) always on top of the dyke. I really scenic section but day time max temperature was only 4 degrees in early April and I was freezing my butt off ... 
Because my camping gear was not fit for these temperatures I booked myself into another "worker room" in Graudenz (Grudiaz) and did the next section as a day trip by bus. I had falsely assumed that the bus would leave from the bus station. First of all it was not exactly a bus but a transporter and secondly it left from a nondescript bus stop in front of a supermarket. Luckily I had scouted out everything the day before. When I left Graudenz for good on day two the "bus" driver greeted me already and knew where I was going. There were only two passengers in the bus ... 

I used the same trick in Ilawa (Eylau) where I could also hike a section as a day trip by train. I had now entered Mazuria with its many lakes. But winter temperatures in April did not lead me into temptation to swim ...
Both Ilawa and Ostroda had been mostly destroyed in World War II so there was not much to see there. But I was now on the European long-distance trail E11 - there were even signposts with the E11 sign! 
Along this stretch I also saw several "half"-kayaks housing stations of the cross. When I examined this weird combination a bit closer I realised that they were located along the route Pope John Paul II had taken a boat trip in his younger age ...
The weather had been somehow sunny for a couple of days but as soon as I reached Olsztyn the temperatures dropped extremely within hours. I could wear only a shirt at lunch, had to put on a jacket at 2 pm and gloves at 5 pm ... But luckily I was due to have a rest day in town now!

Poland: Greater Poland Camino

To be honest the Camino route across Poland is not really very exciting. The landscape is dead flat, there is very little forest but endless fields. The trail is often routed over paved roads. There was no protection against the ice cold winds, rain and snow. But there were lovely sections along the river Odra or the many beautiful tree alleys. I discovered lots of interesting village churches and cemeteries, often still with German tombstones. Because of the winter temperatures people weres still heating their houses. Thick black smoke came out of the chimneys which smelled horrible. At least for this reason the Corona face masks were of advantage...

Lubin monastery church
Highlight of this section was the monastery in Lubin. Despite lockdown the monks let me stay in their guesthouse. I had expected a drab dormitory but there were modern single ensuite rooms even with Wifi. The monks even brought me something to eat for dinner. During morning mass it was freezing cold in the huge church ...
The Camino now led me through Chłapowski landscape park - but if I had not know it is a landscape park I would not have realized it ... Chłapowski was a pioneer of agriculture and introduced new methods which meant that the entire landscape park consisted mainly of endless flat fields.
Unfortunately the Camino is routed over mostly concrete although better alternatives exist nearby which I used instead.
Still my feet were hurting when I finally reached Poznan (and the end of the Camino walking for me!).
I stayed in an incredibly luxurious holiday apartment in Poznan with even a bath tub to recover from my first 10 days of hiking. And I loved Poznan with its beautifully restored city centre!

Poland: Lower Silesian Camino

At the bridge across river Neiße in Görlitz
Like one year ago I took the train to Görlitz - only that it snowed this time! I went to the exact same spot where I had started my hike to Italy on May 31st, 2020. Back then the sun was shining and I wore a T-shirt. On March 17th, 2021 it was bitterly cold and raining - I even had to wear a jacket. But one year ago the border was closed whereas this time I could cross without any problems. I did not even need a Corona test (althoug I had taken one just in case!). Just four hours into my hike I got a disastrous message on my smartphone. Four days from now Poland would go into a hard lockdown because infection numbers were rising exponentially. 

Market square of Bolesławiec
This news hit me hard: I had chosen Poland because hotels and museums were open - and now everything would close down! Normally this would not affect me that much because I am camping anyways and do not depend much on hotels. But the weather forecast was a nightmare with temperatures well below freezing for the next few days. I had prebooked hotels for the first few days but would they accept me now in lockdown? Tourist travel was forbidden now but as a writer I was travelling on business. The first night I stayed in a hotel in Luban which would close for lockdown. Would I even be able to find accommodation that was open?
I decided to hike on. Lower Silesia was once German so every town had an old German name. I discovered that there are two "Naumburgs" and walked through Bunzlau (Bolesławiec) at night where I stayed in a quite luxurious "room for workers". The quantity of the breakfast there was really meant for workers and saved me eating lunch!

The next days let me walk through various snow storms, temperatures dropped down to -6 C. In Polkowice I stayed in a hotel on the first day of lockdown. They confirmed my booking only one day before because it was still unclear who was allowed to use hotels. My publishing house had sent me a document stating that I am travelling on business which was luckily accepted wheras another hotel cancelled my booking claiming that foreigners were not allowed. When I asked at the reception what the exact rules are the receptionist just shrugged her shoulders: "We do not really know ..."

Crossing the Odra in Glogow
The Lower Silesian Camino ends in Glogow (Glogau) where I crossed the river Oder on a bridge that was painted in bright pink! (No idea, why they chose this unusual color ...). The last days had been filled with snow storms and I had not met a single other hiker. In fact, my gpx track had even led me to a major construction site. Where the camino is supposed to be now a motorway is being built. I had trouble crossing it ... I had booked myself into a holiday apartment in Glogow where I even stayed two days to do the next section as a day trip by train - because no other accommodation was availabe and the weather continued to be a nightmare.

Sunday 14 March 2021

Poland to Finland: The plan

After one year of Corona restrictions many countries are still (or again) closed to tourists, my original plan to hike in the US went down the drain. In spring 2021 there is not much choice of hiking destinations, especially if you don't want to fly. I still have two "unfinished" European traverses so it was obvious for me to pursue one of them - and the choice was easy: Last year I had started in Görlitz at the German-Polish border and had hiked South to Italy. This year I will start there again and go North through Poland, all three Baltic states and Finnland up the Finnish-Swedish border at the Gulf of Bothnia. The route is already planned out because I had intended to go there in 2020, but then had changed to Italy instead. 

In this still unstable Corona situation Poland is a great choice: It borders Germany and in an emergency I can easily get back by train. More important still: Poland has currently very few restrictions for travellers. I don't need a Corona test to enter, even museums and hotels are open - and I will need accommodation at the beginning of my trip because now in March it is still bitterly cold! But most important: I have never hiked long-distance in Poland before, only short sections in the Tatras. 

When I stumbled across a Polish Triple Crowner on the internet I contacted her - and Agnieska aka Zebra helped me to find a better route than my own concoction. I will now hike on a mixture of pilgrimage trails, the European long-distance trail E11 and self-designed routes. 

If I will be allowed to enter Lithuania by the time I get there, I will continue on the Camino Lituano, followed by the Camino Latvia and the Coastal Trail in Latvia and a long-distance trail in Estonia.

In Finland I'll follow the E6 which is now a project of Finnish hiker Matti who offered a wealth of route suggestions and advice.

The entire route is about 3500 km long and I'll begin with 1,200 km through Poland. 

I will start as soon as the weather improves and hope to be able to succeed in hiking the entire route - but this year a lot can go wrong or cause changes.