Back in the USSR? First full day in Kaliningrad Oblast

Two days into Kaliningrad…

Fascinating to have arrived in Kaliningrad Region – looks, feels, smells even so much like the Russia/Soviet Union Jutta and I knew so well.

Our two-day slow route in mapped on the right, from Mauerwald with its crazy WWII bunkers, to Gusev/formerly Gumbinnen.

Pre-WWII Gumbinnen was solidly German, of course, but no question who’s here now. Possibly the shiniest golden domes on any Russian Orthodox church either of us have ever seen. A statement, to put it mildly.

The charming post-Soviet view from the back of our hotel (The Imperial, via Booking.Com!) over Gusev towards the new Orthodox church. The Russians were never very good at town-planning. Beauty isn’t a widely understood concept, it seems…

Well, short of a reference to the CPSU, this poster comes straight from Soviet days. Thanks to our grandfathers for victory, peace and happiness, and eternal glory be unto them.

When the Germans of old built roads, they built them to last. Cobbled segment of the ride up from the border, through landscape strikingly different from Poland’s half of the old East Prussia. Here, so far, very little arable land, and rolling pastures with huge cattle herds. Not a lot has happened here for decades.

Wells still in action, and fencing so familiar…

Side road with bungalows. Life here clearly isn’t easy for the migrants and their families brought in here to populate Russia’s new strategic outlet to the warm Baltic after 1945.

Not a lot of traffic just into Kaliningrad Region. Relief at being so warmly processed at the border, by a young ~Russian lady thrilled to see her first-ever tandem. Visas (secured in advance in the UK – it’s no longer possible to visit Kaliningrad visa-free for 3 days) were expensive, but no hassle – quick checks of a couple of panniers, question where we’re going and we were off. Would have like to have photographed the actual border – with its barbed wire, fencing, sand strip and cleared forest looked very much like Cold War Berlin. But given sensitivities, thought probably best to avoid…

Here in Poland still – it’s what street lamps are for. We saw 73 storks in all in one day – a record, by miles.

Another bird family, on Mamry Lake as we awoke to a beautiful Polish day.

Wolfsschanze – Hitler’s forest command centre for most of the latter years of the war. This marks the spot where Stauffenberg and his plotters tried and failed to kill Hitler in July 1944. What might have unfolded if they had succeeded…

Full-size, undamaged bunker at Mauerwald, of the kind Hitler used nearby in Wolsschanze for 800 days between 1941 and the end of 1944. EIGHT METRES of concrete above the small rooms within, to protect against airraids that never came.

Bunker at Wolf’s Lair

Hidden in the forest, with trees on the roof, these bunkers were never identified by Russians or Allies while Hitler was here.

Hitler’s troops blew up the bunkers as best they could as they left in early 1945, just before the Russians got here on their fight towards Berlin. In Communist days, there was no tourism here to speak of – now it’s well organised and very well frequented – so different, Jutta says, from when she was here with her mother in 1975. Still spooky though, and a pretty grim reflection on how recent and devastating that war was, as Hitler directed German strategy rather like a video game, sequestered here in the woods of East Prussia.

Norovirus Rules – but, Kaliningrad here we come.

First, a couple of Garmin map links if you’re interested in our exact route, and speeds, and elevation and all the rest.

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/embed/1909929009

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/embed/1909906242

If you check, you’ll note that the first one suddenly picks up speed dramatically after Rozogi. And yes, from that point we were no longer trundling sedately along on Daisy, but aboard a VW Transporter taxi taking us both as rapidly as possible to hotel, bed and safety as Mark brewed, two days later than Jutta, the same Norovirus projectile vomiting bug.

Needless to say, no cycling got done yesterday either, which has meant that by the end of week one-of-four away, we’re already three days down on our original pedalling plans.

Hey ho, life is life, and we’re both now fine, and loving the Polish scenery – today the waterways of the Mazurian Lakes, formerly the southern part of German East Prussia and one of the loveliest holiday destinations imaginable (as long as the weather is as good as it was today.) Let the pix speak.

Tomorrow, we hope for our first, full, untruncated day’s ride, with neither VW minibus nor a boat to help us on our way, and with neither of us ending our ride with a mad, urgent dash for the loo…

We’re heading first thing out of Gizycko past Hitler’s latter wartime bunker in the forests at Wolfsschanze/Wolf’s Lair (the place where the July 20 1944 assassination attempt failed and which was blown up by his guards just before the Russians got here in early 1945), and thence to Goldap to cross into Kaliningrad Oblast, with luck, on Sunday.

Formerly an entirely closed military area, and we’re going through on a tandem. Could be interesting.

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The gravel/sand road that did me in yesterday – glorious scenery, but seriously hard work keeping Daisy upright in the soft surface. And avoiding all the cows…

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Hotel Nidski in Ruciane Nida – a three-star oasis for recovery from Norovirus in one of the most beautiful parts of the world we’ve ever been

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Jutta’s capture of the evening light from the back of the hotel, as Mark was groaning in thankfully transient Norovirus agony indoors.

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The Masurian Lakes., We went today from down the bottom to pretty much near the top, mostly on a boat. Ah, peace and relaxation.

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Individuals enjoying the three-hour boat ride from Mikolajki to Gizycko.

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Hat to smile. Polish blokes cooling off over a beer – nothing like a cold compress on the lower limbs while the rest of the family do family things onshore.

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Bit blurred, but clear who’s navigating.

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The lakes here are all joined up with 19th century, and some earlier, canals. VERY popular, and rightly so.

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A typcal Masurian Lake view.

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Daisy loaded. We’re a bit like a road train when we’re up and rolling. Unstoppable.

 

One Day In, and Careful What You Eat

Experimenting with a Garmin map below of our first day’s cycling north from Warsaw – very nearly 100km before we had to stop with Jutta nursing a very sore stomach from eating something that disagreed.

She’s feeling better today as we enjoy an unplanned 24-hour pause at a delightful small hotel on our way towards the Baltic.

Until it wasn’t, yesterday was magic as we pedalled through an unspoiled, hot, late summer Polish countryside alive with storks and – compared with the contract behemoths that now work our English countryside – dinky, individually-owned combine harvesters and balers very much like those we used growing up in 1960s Norfolk.

Jutta’s already feeling much better, so with luck, the journey resumes in the morning.

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/embed/1903141138

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The open Polish countryside – we made sure after this stretch that we stayed on tarmac. Manoeuvering a very heavy bicycle through soft sand is a hard push.

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Jutta nearly reached her 1975 record of 21 stork sightings in one day. We made it to 20 before she fell sick.

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Mr & Mrs Stork. Not too many broad-mouthed frogs hereabouts (old East German joke relates).

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Harvesters at work.

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Ancient old Harvesters flat out in the deepest countryside north of Warsaw.

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Picnic with Daisy, and Jutta

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Another group of ancient harvesters, though of a different kind. Here with host and old BBC friend and Warsaw colleague Karol Malcuzynski.

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Jutta with block of flats where she lived for several weeks in summer of 1975 on a working study leave break at the (then West) German embassy in Warsaw.

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Former Victoria Hotel where the visiting journos lived during the Solidarity summer of 1981.

Chopin and Changing. Daisy’s here…

All’s well, British Airways finally delivered Daisy safely if 36 hours later to Warsaw’s Chopin airport (sorry for the terrible, and obvious, pun in the headline…) and we set off north tomorrow.

First though, an open-air Chopin concert in Warsaw’s Lazienki Park.

And this is how Daisy arrived, her plastic packing somewhat compromised from her journeying from London. We’ll see if we can check her in from Tallinn in three-and-a-half weeks’ time with just the chain covered in, and the wheels still turning.

Tandem Warsaw to Tallinn

So, after a satisfying if brief dalliance with electric bikes in the south of France in May, it’s time again for some serious cycling, with Daisy our tandem some 1300km from Warsaw up through Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad and Riga to Tallinn, the Estonian capital.

I’ll see if I can embed here a rough version of our route from Google maps, and put it also in the sidebar. Though note that Google doesn’t allow mapping of cycle routes through Kaliningrad, only walking, so there’ll be much of the route that’s done differently.

The upside to our springtime electric cycling in Provence (and the Pyrenees and Medoc) was Jutta’s delight in being helped along by the motor (like having a permanent and powerful following wind), allowing her rather to befriend again the idea of long-distance cycling.

The downside is that tandeming is, as it was for our Tour Aotearoa last year the length of New Zealand, hard if rewarding work, so zipping up hills (of which thankfully for Jutta there are only a few between here and Tallinn) and pedalling hard into headwinds will again be a rather rougher challenge.

Still, with three-and-a-half weeks to complete the trip, we’re game – and if we’re lucky, Daisy should arrive at last here in Warsaw this afternoon, having missed the flight in London on Friday (which we, by the way, happily caught – there must have been a loading issue with British Airways, who have been very apologetic.)

We head off in the morning, inspired by a warm welcome from old BBC friend and colleague Karol Malcuzynski from our shared 1981 reporting days in Solidarity Poland (we hadn’t seen each other for 35 years), and by the following stimulating slogan spied yesterday evening at a Feminist Initiative protest camp outside the nearby Sejm, or parliament building:

POLAND NEEDS FEMINISM. NOW.

(Great line for Protest marches in the UK perhaps – what do we want? Feminism!! When do we want it? NOW!!)

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And for good measure, we also visited last night Germany’s still relatively new embassy in Warsaw, just opposite the feminists, with pictures on its fence of the old embassy premises across the Vistula river in Saska Kepa, where Jutta worked for three months in 1975.

A weekend of shared nostalgia.

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Mount Ventoux – with a little electro-help

Our two Kalkhoff BeatBikes, from 50cycles.com, took Mt Ventoux – the Mecca of serious global cycling and 5000 feet or so of uphill slog – in their stride.

Mark got up on the Sport setting, and bottom gear, while Jutta used the full Monty, on Power all the way up. And even then, we each had half a battery spare for the ride home.

A great day, and enjoy the pix.

Atop Mt Ventoux, two BeatBikes and proud handlers.

Jutta tiny against the mountain, Ventoux summit in sight.

 

Yes, with that sit-up-and-beg position, Jutta does look like a shopper on her way to the supermarket in Amsterdam…

Mark’s e-bike with a couple of Ortlieb panniers. When we’re touring, with gear, there’s a seriously large top bag across the back pannier carrier as well.

View of Jutta and hilly Provence.

On our way up.

Provencal roads, magical for cycling.

Lavender about to bloom – signature view for Provence, looking down to Sainte Jalle.

Not difficult to see where the French impressionists got their inspiration. Nature paints the light, and you just have to capture it. Here at Sainte-Jalle, Provence.

Cycling The Medoc and Pyrenees – on electrics, for heaven’s sake!

The Braynes’ Tour de France Electrique continuing to go rather well, from Bordeaux and the Medoc down to the Pyrenees, where Mark spent a wonderful week this time of year in 1970 helping restore an old police station/young people’s holiday hostel in Saurat, near Tarascon-sur-Arriege (and Andorra).

Alongside the weather’s perfect timing, and the sheer pleasure of being in a European nation that’s PROUD of being European, it’s been particularly good to discover the brilliance of modern e-bikes, which enabled us to climb two 4000′ cols today, barrelling somewhat shamedfacedly past struggling French cyclistes doing it properly.

Jutta esp, who couldn’t/wouldn’t have done this sans electrisme, is glowing with pride and well-exercised muscles this evening. Another col tmmw?

Captions help put the pix in context