My first experience in Poland was one of the greatest surprises of my Travel Life so far. We set off at the crack of some ungodly hour from a deserted Berlin Hauptbahnhof- it looks beautiful at that time, the glass is just starting to warm up and reflect the golden sunrise. People like us are just beginning to shuffle wanly from platform to platform. Shuffle, shuffle, flop down on bench, wait, shuffle, shuffle, flop into train carriage. As crazy as this may sound it’s the first train where I’ve ever sat in a compartment- compartments in trains till now belonged to the Famous Five and the Hogwarts Express exclusively; no longer. I spent most of the early morning trundle between Berlin and Poznan in a fitful, marginally uncomfortable sleep with obscure dreams, and I woke up to find myself in Poland. My first shock- I speak no Polish. Most of the countries I’ve been to so far I’ve had a few basic words, if not a phrase book, but Polish is completely alien to me, I can’t even forge a basic understanding by desperate listening, I have no grip whatsoever and it’s the most intimidated and useless I’ve ever felt. Note to self: learn more languages.
I won’t try and describe Poznan as a place because we really only saw the grim, grey of the concrete train station- not much to recommend it but I’m sure the city is great. We watched, somewhat in alarm, at the procedure as huge, snaking trains, towering over the platforms, drew up slowly to collect their passengers. Everyone would surge forward in standard train-boarding procedure and then creaking metal stairs would descend with a thud, landing at a horrible angle for climbing and I watched as one crooked old lady struggled to haul her suitcase up behind her, then gave up and let it drop back to the platform for someone else to pick up. The train is too long for the platform too, so every now and then, mid-boarding, it would creep forward a few feet with people still attached to the steps at various heights, as if it had thought about leaving and then changed it’s mind again and gone back to sleep. When we boarded our train it was unlike any Western European train I’d ever been on- I’d sort of been taking for granted how relatively new Germany’s trains are and although some of the South West lines at home are a bit grim, well, they aren’t quite like this. We winkle our way into a carriage, any carriage, after giving up finding our own, and fight our way partway down the train until we reach a compartment that appears to match my ticket. I have landed in the angry compartment. Everyone in there is angry; no doubt at eight of us having to share quite so much personal space for 6 hours. I eventually manage to stow my luggage above one angry woman’s head and decide I’d rather spend the journey in the corridor.
The six hours I stand and stare out of the window, or perch on a pull-down seat, are really quite pretty. Not stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful landscape, just pleasant, green, rolling countryside with a Cheshire-esque feel occasionally speckled with towns, or villages, either terracotta red or stagnant grey in colour. I avoid the extremely basic toilet, and the pungent area of corridor around it and watch amusedly as the well over 6ft guard clambers across the full-scale assault course of a corridor. Poland I notice, as I gaze some more over the stretches of farmland, is actually much greener than anyone bothers to assume. I must admit, when I think of Poland I only think of post-war devastation or Krakow.
We have a few hours to kill in Gdansk once we finally arrive, despite our bags we’re determined to see as much of it as we can get to. We stumble rather dazedly through the old, towering city- all the buildings seem lofty and regal here, gazing down on us with mild disdain. The grandeur of the architecture isn’t mirrored in the wonderful market we find below. Somehow having stumbled in on a bank holiday we find the streets piled with stalls, full to the brim with treasures and tat spilling over the cobbles. Everything at ground level seems small and personal compared to the stature of the surrounding red structures. We come back to Gdansk four days later and snatch another moment of the city, this time in the cover of darkness, shell-shocked from a six hour traffic jams and innumerate wrong turnings. Hostel Happy Seven has to be one of my favourite hostels I’ve ever visited. They have a no-shoes-in-the-hostel policy, amazingly friendly and helpful staff and comfy, deep beds, cosily packed in, mattresses sitting in black metal frames with bio-hazard style tape decorating; modern and fun. Along the hostel street and the harbour side, less that 500m away, were some brilliant bars and restaurants. But for a modicum more energy and I’d have been up all night. The harbour twinkles delicately, and the clip clop of heels on the cobble stones hint this is a classy area. My favourite part of the view from our patio-heated balcony where we’re sipping wine is the large pirate ship moored across the water, complete with scull and cross bones.
We leave Gdansk by train, and then continue into the evening by bus, crossing wide open, and incredibly flat, stretches of countryside as the sun sinks quickly across the railway lines. It was dusky by the time we arrived in Debki. Debki is a tiny seaside resort that makes its money (I would guess) almost entirely from tourist trade; our landlady even says she goes away out of season because there’s nothing to do here. Mostly wooden houses and hotels are speckled between the tall trees, the paths are sandy and sprinkled with pine needles, the pleasantly shady woods running right down to the beach then suddenly stopping, the slightly darker woodland sand blending seamlessly with the soft white of the beach that stretches towards the Baltic. I haven’t been to the sea in what feels like too long, the sky is wider here than it can ever be in a town or city, and the few clouds there are swirl into intricate patterns and do nothing to persuade the sun on its relentless pursuit to make us sweat. We are here for a beach Frisbee tournament, and I thought the beach would be monopolised by Frisbee players wielding pizzas and at various stages of intoxication, but it’s crowded with all kinds of people. Debki seems to be a great family destination, and there are lots of dogs here too, but it’s spotless (I can’t stand dirty beaches) and the sea is clear and aquamarine- so deliciously tempting, if bracing. My memories of Debki will always be of the constant bubbling sound of people, people who were really happy, most of that sound completely indiscernible to me. It will be of sitting in the cool sand at night after swallowing fiery absinthe shots and overheating in the bustling interior of Kontener, one of the many beach bars filled with Eastern-Europeans with insane dancing skills that cleared the floor as they whirled around in some bizarre ballroom-meets-pulling-technique manoeuvre. It will also be of watching hundreds of sky lanterns dance off into the ether as we collected on the last night of the tournament, and of really cheap food and cheap alcohol even though we mostly hadn’t a clue what we were ordering.