Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Post 6: To Hel and Back

There are two other places I'd like to tell you about before we leave Northern Poland. The first is Malbork Castle--the largest castle in the world by area as measured by land area and the largest brick castle anywhere. It's located by the town of Malbork--no surprise there! And it's about an hour or so train ride from Gdańsk. Not far from Gdańsk, but not exactly close either!

Malbork Castle

It was built by the Teutonic knights and completed in 1406 and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Karolina felt that I should see this magnificent structure, so one day she picked me up from school like a mom picking up a child and we boarded a train to Malbork.

The train ride was uneventful. The skies were dark and ugly, and we hoped we wouldn't have to tromp around in the wet and mud. For the most part, the rain held off and wasn't an issue--just an occasional ever-so-light sprinkle that never lasted long.

At the castle, we signed up for the first tour group that was leaving. It was a Polish-speaking group, but I was okay with that. I was in Poland to learn Polish, after all. Maybe I couldn't understand everything the tour guide would be telling us, but I'd have Karolina to translate as needed. =)

The castle was amazing, and I'll let the photos speak for themselves. The part that fascinated me most was the reconstruction of the castle after the severe damage inflicted during World War II.

View from the top of the castle tower.

The war seemed so long ago in my head. The stuff you read about in history books. I wasn't alive during that war, so it seems like ancient history to me. But the thing is, there ARE people who are still around who DO remember the war. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't really all that long ago. When I was born, the war had ended 30 years earlier. I'm now further away from my birthday than my birthday was away from WWII. My dad was around during the war, although just a wee child at the time. It's history, but it's not really ancient history.

And I'd been seeing a lot of photos of the devastation across Poland while I was here. I'd seen pictures of Gdańsk and Warsaw where nearly every building had been completely leveled and absolutely zero had escaped without severe damage. And even Malbork Castle suffered in the war. There weren't any great battles in Malbork, but still, it was heavily damaged from the war. It really opened my eyes about how wide and far ranging the war really was. Nobody in Poland was spared, and it was probably the same all over Europe.

A large billboard with a photo of the castle shortly after WWII stood near the entrance, and I have to say that they've done a splendid job of fixing it up.

This large sign shows a photo of Malbork Castle shortly after World War II ended and the severe damaged it suffered.
It's looking much better today!
An entrance to the castle
And another entrance
Inside the castle walls
Inside a chapel in the castle

The other destination I'd like to highlight is the town of Hel. (I bet many of you thought that was a typo in the title of my blog post, didn't you? It's okay to admit it! But the town is named Hel, with one L, and is pronounced just like the word hell--with two L's.)

Hel also happens to be the Polish word for helium--but that has no bearing on this story since the town was named long before helium was even known to exist. But Karolina wanted to take me there, I think mostly so she could brag that she's taken me "to Hel and back." But she swore it was a nice place to visit, just like the "End of the World" in Finisterre when we hiked the Camino.

Anyhow, Hel is a small town of about 4,000 people located at the tip of the Hel Peninsula located about 20 miles from the Polish mainland, and a ferry boat could whisk us directly from Sopot to Hel. With the start of the summer vacation season, the pier in Sopot now had an entrance fee, which I had to pay in order to get to the ferry boat that would take us to Hel. (I used to walk out on the pier on a near-daily basis for the first four weeks I was in Poland but stopped that habit the last week when they started charging an entrance fee. This would be the only time I went out on the pier after the entrance fee was instituted. Just another reason to visit Sopot during the off-season!)

This was our ride to Hel, just before leaving its dock on the pier in Sopot.
The boat ride took the better part of an hour, and it was a cold but pleasant ride. (Notice everyone wearing warm coats on the boat?)

We arrived into Hel, and our first order of business was to find lunch. (There's a picture of it in the food post, but I didn't mention Hel since it wasn't relevant at the time.) Karolina had wanted to visit the seal sanctuary (or fokarium in Polish--which sounds like a sex club to my English-hearing ears--but foka is the Polish word for seal). We went by to check it out, but changed our minds when we saw the enormous crowds of people already in it and lined up.

Hel had been a military installation for much of the 1900s being a key location for coastal defenses. It was one of the longest-defended pockets of Polish resistance at the start of WWII, and the German navy used it during the war to train U-boat crews. At the end of the war, Hel was the last part of Polish soil to be liberated. In a sense, WWII started at the front door of Gdańsk and ended at the back door of Hel.

In 1996, the Polish navy sold almost all of the land they still had to civilian authorities and now the peninsula is largely a tourist mecca and travel destination with just a tiny navel base that I think is used more for monitoring air and water traffic than for defensive purposes.

Karolina poses like the girl in the background. (I suggested that she should take off her shirt and pants and do the pose in her underwear to better recreate the image, but she didn't much like that idea! Of course, I didn't really mean it--it was just a joke!)

Hel is connected to the Polish mainland by a very thin, narrow strip of land that's so straight and narrow, it looks like a man-made creation on maps (link to map, just in case you're curious), but it's actually natural, formed by the water currents circling around the Baltic Sea. It's so narrow, in fact, just before the peninsula surrendered to Germany, Polish engineers used a number of torpedo warheads to separate the peninsula from the mainland turning it into an island.

It's a peninsula again now, and is connected to the mainland with a railroad and a small road. It's so narrow in places, you could stand in the center and throw a rock and hit the water on either side.

But I digress.... with the trip to the fokarium off the table, we decided just to go for a walk around the peninsula and visit some of the old military installations. We wanted to get out of the town which was crazy with tons of tourists. OMG--the tourists! Everywhere! They were thick outside of town on the trails too, but nowhere near as claustrophobic as in town.

We toured the lighthouse on the peninsula and generally just enjoyed the views and historical information about the area. I've always heard bad things about hell, but as it turns out, Hel was rather pleasant despite the name. =)

I tried to recreate the pirate mural, but I don't think I had the heft to really pull it off well.

The ride back to Sopot, however, was hell. The last ferry boat had left Hel long before, so we had to take the train back. Which at first I thought was great--we're making a loop! I get to see more places!

But the train was woefully inadequate for the number of people who wanted to get onto the train. I was a little worried we wouldn't get on the train at all--and it's not like they ran very often. There was one more train a few hours later, then that was it for the day. There was no way the train could get everyone out of hell and I wondered what happened to those who got stranded in Hel?

Karolina and I pushed our way as close to the front of the crowd as we could, and I clung to her arm tightly trying to make sure we wouldn't get separated. The train pulled up and lots of people piled in, but it quickly filled and Karolina and I were still well outside with a couple of dozen of people still between us and the door. I didn't think we had a snowball's chance in Hel of getting into that train. (I couldn't help myself with the pun. I had to do it!)

I was especially annoyed at the bicyclists who had been boarding the train. I'm all for public transit, and I don't really want to diss bikes, but every bike that got on that train was a couple of other people who couldn't, and it seemed to me that people should be a higher priority than bikes. Not to mention that people on a bike could bike back to the mainland. Us people on foot didn't have that option. Oh, sure, I could walk 20 miles to the mainland, but most people couldn't and this late in the afternoon, I wouldn't make it back until closer to sunrise the next day! Walking was not an option, but biking could be! So I was more than a little annoyed at the bikes filling up the train.

Old military installations
\Our forward momentum towards the doors of the train had come to an almost complete stop, but it hadn't stopped completely. People were still pushing hard into the train--and let me tell you, there was some serious pushing going on. And we crept closer and closer to the doors. About five minutes later, we could almost touch them! We were so close! I was sure the doors were going to close right in our face as we watched the train pull away.

But somehow, a miracle happened in Hel! Because we got on that train. I spent about a minute standing right in the way of the door, refusing to get off but unable to push the last half of my body in. Karolina had gotten completely on the train, but I couldn't quite make it. I took off my small backpack and held it by my legs--I took up less space without a pack on a back and because legs are much smaller than a person's torso, there was plenty of space for the small pack by my legs. I didn't dare let go of the handle, though, because I'd never be able to bend down far enough to pick it up again.

The pressure of people behind us kept pushing, though, and eventually my body cleared the doorway. We were on the train!

The Hel lighthouse

The train station outside hadn't been selling tickets for the train, which meant we were supposed to pay for them on the train. Usually you go to the head of the train where they'll sell you tickets, but we decided to Hel with that. There was no way we'd ever work our way to that point. Maybe after people started getting off and it wasn't so crowded anymore. Not like they could have a fair inspector walk through this mass of human suffering and check tickets anyhow.

I don't know how it was possible, but people continued to slowly get on the train, and as we stood there in that mass of humanity, I took a look around and counted the number of people I was touching at that exact moment. Seven. The strange thought went through my head--have I ever been touching this many people at the same time anywhere before in my entire life? I couldn't think of any time. I've been in crowded buses and trains before, but this had to be a new record even for me.

I was pressed up close against Karolina (not to mention six other people) and quietly whispered in her, "I'm touching SEVEN people right now."

After the train had cleared a bit and I could maneuver my arms to get my camera and move it over my head, I took this photo. Keep in mind, this photo was taken after a significant number of people had already gotten off the train!

She didn't seem very sympathetic, though. Probably because she had her own, similar problems. She appeared to only be touching six people, but her smaller size might mean there was just less surface area on her--it didn't necessarily mean that she was less crowded into the train than I was.

Finally, the doors of the train closed and we started moving out from the train station. There were a lot of disappointed looks from other tourists and visitors still outside of the train who never made it on.

At the next stop on the peninsula, we pulled up to another train station and I almost laughed out loud. That was absurd! Nobody else was going to fit on this train, and who could possibly be getting off after getting on at Hel? (Hel is the last stop on the peninsula so when the train arrived, everyone who had been on it got off, and everyone who had gotten on it got on at the same stop we did.)

But I was surprised--quite a few people wound up getting off the train, and amazingly even more got in.

"Karolina," I whispered to her. "I think NINE people are touching me now!"

We stood in these conditions for about a half hour, as people got on and off at the various stops. It wasn't until we reached the end of the Hel Peninsula that we finally got a little breathing room and weren't pressed against so many other people. Shortly thereafter, we even got seats!

The train only went as far as Gdynia, so we then transferred to another train the last several miles to Sopot and called it a day. Hel was beautiful, but if you ever visit, don't do it during the tourist season, and don't wait for the last train of the day!

I don't know if the taxi is hell, but the train ride out certainly was!

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