John BERRY BICYCLE TRIP 2015 Blog Instalment #3: June 4th, 2015
By the time I had seen Warsaw I was more than a week behind schedule, so I decided to take the train to NE Poland in order to catch up. My destination of choice was Bialystok or somewhere just beyond it. My attempts to buy a ticket turned into a comedy of errors, as the Information lady at the station did not have very good English, but told me that it was impossible to take my bike beyond MaLkinia, a little town 100km from Warsaw – after that no problem. The lady at the ticket window threw her hands up and said “go to the main passenger assistance place”. I sat there for half an hour with my number in my hot little hand, and then got a lady with very good English: she explained that it was the first part of the journey that was the problem – the line was under maintenance between Warsaw and MaLkinia and service was by bus, which could not take bicycles. However… if I was willing to take the expensive “Pendolino” express to Gdynia, I could get off at ILawa and take a series of little trains that would get me to ELk (pronounced E-uwk). ILawa is within 60 km (38 mi) of Torun; from there to Olsztyn, a pretty little University town, was another 60 km in an ancient rackety-bangy-rocky-jerky train left over from the Soviet era. At Olsztyn we changed to a crowded railcar, and set off for The Wolf”s Lair and Kaliningrad – at Korsze we were within 20 km(12 mi) of the Russian exclave”s border, and a few miles later, at Ketrzyn, we went right by Hitler”s bunker. I got to tour all of NE Poland by train for Eu35, with apologies for the expense!
ELk was a nice little town, a lakeside resort, but rain threatened and I set off along a straight, dark, road tunneled by dense and tall forests, to Augustow, another resort town, set on a canal built in the nineteenth century to connect the Vistula and Nieman drainages. From Augustow I was really in a dank tunnel of tall trees, in heavy rain, as I pedaled frantically into the strong headwinds (thank goodness for those trees – when there was a clearing it blew a blast indeed!). I reached Sejny, on the Lithuanian border, in a state of exhaustion, but found a very nice room and cheap, but good dinner, in the Lithuanian Consulate, which also functioned as a welcome center, tourist information bureau, guardian of the Lithuanian population of Sejny (the majority), hotel, restaurant and bar. To understand this Lithuanian government presence inside Poland it helps to know that Poland and Lithuania fought a nasty little war in 1918-1920, which Poland won, capturing the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Some heavy fighting, commemorated in the town”s museum, took place around Sejny.
The question one might well ask is: why wasn”t this fighting between the Jews and the Poles or Lithuanians? The area in dispute was one of many minorities, with no majority group, but the largest group by far was the Jews. In 1939 everybody else, especially the Lithuanian population, turned against the Jews and cooperated with the Nazis in their utter destruction. Why was a Jewish State never seriously proposed for the Jewish Pale? One of the main things I was in Sejny to see was a magnificent synagogue, listed as a protected site – but nobody cares. The building is delapidated, apparently unused, surrounded by graffiti. One feels that it should be a tenderly cared for memorial to a lost civilisation, to a generation of the fallen who wanted no part in the fight that killed them, but the guidebook says that even the Jewish cemetery is neglected, unkempt, and that only the oldest inhabitants of the town even know where it is. In Sejny one is surrounded by ghosts – ghosts whom no-one wants to acknowledge.
The frontier with Lithuania was marked only by a wide space in the road and some derelict buildings that once housed the border officials. However, a little further on was a new Tourist Information office manned by a nice young man who let me borrow towels from オンライン カジノ the wash-room to blow my runny nose and waited patiently while I warmed up enough to speak. He gave me lots of information about the region, which immediately changed character: the dark forests of the Polish Puszcza were replaced by a rolling landscape of small mixed farms and an infinite variety of greens: spring wheat and darker winter wheat, fruit orchards, patches of deciduous woodland and small dark conifer woods. Cows were tethered along the roadside to graze on the verges and in the ditches, little wooden houses dotted the landscape, and every once in a while there was a patch of bright yellow rape. The air was scented with lilac at each farmhouse, and the apple trees were in bloom.
The idyll ended when I reached Alytus, a town that had been virtually wiped off the map during the war, and replaced with a concrete Communist industrio-residential complex. Since the end of communism the town had tried to re-recreate itself, with a large central park replacing whatever replaced the pre-war slums. The adjacent Communist parade square had been remodeled somewhat with fountains and sidewalk cafes, but it was still a windswept piece of Brutalist city design. Parking lots partially surrounded this monstrosity – they were so large that I couldn”t see what was on the other side. However, the people were very pleasant and helpful, as I suppose you have to be to survive in an ugly city. The lady at the Tourist Information bureau directed me to the nearest ATM (I had no Euros) found me a clean, cheap room overlooking the giant parking lot, and the people there let me keep my bike in the dining room overnight.
The next morning a long climb brought me back up onto the beautiful lake-studded plateau, and I stopped for lunch at a very fancy resort with its own airstrip: they were not really serving lunch, and had little food available (I think the day”s supplies were being unloaded from a truck as I left), but they served me a very nice pork cutlet, which they called “ham”.
At about 4.00 pm I reached Trakai, a fascinating and very beautiful place – the seat of Lithuania”s Grand Dukes during the country”s period of greatness, when it extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The centerpiece of the town is a huge castle on an island, which today is reached by a series of wooden walkways, in Lake Galve: the setting is breathtaking.
The castle is a museum, but I found the collections a bit underwhelming – much eighteenth and nineteenth century porcelain, and many clay pipes of the same periods. However, the historical write-ups on the history of the castle are fascinating: remember Lee Radziwill? The Radziwill were the masters of this castle for generations.
The Grand Duke who built most of the castle at the beginning of the 1400s, Vytautas the Great, imported Karaites, Turkic-speaking Jews, from the Crimea as castle guards (although this is questioned in a Wikipedia article, as is any suggestion that the Karaites are descended from the Khazars). The Karaites do not accept the rabbinic tradition or the Talmud, but only the Old Testament, They were able to avoid some of the Pogroms and the Nazi extermination campaign by claiming to have already been in exile when Christ was crucified, and therefore not having any responsibility: now some claim not to be jews at all. Their descendants still speak Kipchak Turkish and still live in the old town, as well as in several other places in Poland and Belarus. Their Keneset, or meeting house, is still in use, but I finished my tour of the castle too late to go inside. Vytautas also brought Muslim soldiers to serve him at Trakai, and small communities of them still survive in Trakai and a few other places in Poland.
From Trakai I rode in the gathering evening towards Vilnius, hoping to pass some accomodation on the way. The old road was very bad, with some fierce hills where it crossed small streams, and when it ended it dumped me on a freeway, which soon became a major six-lane highway on which I was buzzed by trolley-busses every few minutes. However, I soon found myself approaching the Old Town of Vilnius along a rather run-down early twentieth century boulevard. I stopped to ask a young couple who were speaking English to each other where there might be a good hostel, and Kate, the young lady said “Do I ever! I work at the HostelGate hostel, which is excellent.” It was, too: she telephoned them to let them know I was coming, and gave me excellent directions. by the time I hauled the bike up the stairs to their reception area I had done 69 miles (110 km) that day.