Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Cold Day in Hel

There were all sorts of puns I thought of using to title this post: to Hel and back; the train from Hel; the train to Hel.

The plan was to catch the morning train to the small fishing village of Hel, located on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the Baltic Sea. I was joined by two women from the hostel who also wanted to go and weren't sure how to navigate the Polish rail system.

The rail system takes some getting used to. There are several classes of trains, each of which have their rates and speeds. Not all cashiers can issue tickets for all classes of trains. Few of the cashiers can speak English. It makes things interesting.

The train to Hel was packed. Because today is a holiday, everyone wanted to get away from the religious processionals by heading to the beach. We got seats, but the aisles were so packed that we were repeatedly delayed so that by the time we reached the peninsula, we had to wait for 30 minutes for the outbound train to clear, since the peninsula is so narrow, there is only one rail line. In the end, we arrived an hour late.

We headed into town and got some fried fish from a stand at the harbor. The weather was quite a contrast from the last few days; instead of sun and heat we had clouds and cold. We had planned on taking the ferry back to Gdansk. Unfortunately, it was cancelled today due to bad weather. Forced to take the train back, we decided to head to the beach and see the Baltic.

I had brought a swim suit and flip flops in the hopes of getting some swimming, but it was too cold (even though the sun was beginning to peak through). Instead, I decided just to wade in the water (it was cold -- about as cold as the Pacific in So. Cal. this time of year). It would have been just a pleasant experience except for the 6 year-0ld who had lost a floating toy in the water. I tried to retrieve it but it ended up being a plastic box filled with water and much heavier than I thought. I lost my balance and fell into the Baltic Sea.

Luckily I had left my backpack and shoes on dry land, but that still left my shorts and the lower half my shirt soaked. I changed into my bathing suit and spent the rest of the day walking around Poland in a Hawaiian-style bathing suit. Still, it was better than the alternatives.

The ride back was much less crowded and more pleasant. The sun came out and we found ourselves going through the wooded dunes of the peninsula. This was the last piece of Poland to be captured by the Germans and the last piece of Poland liberated from the Germans (between 60,000 and 100,000 German troops held out here until May 1945). The sea was beautiful as were the trees and grasses.

Soon we were heading through the green Polish countryside. I've noticed several times now that outside small towns there are large, elaborate, garden plots. Each family has a large garden, fenced off from the others, which they develop, growing either vegetables or flowers (or both). Most people have some kind of shed, but many of them are quite elaborate, resembling small country cottages. It was late afternoon, and we saw many people sitting out in their gardens as families.

Tomorrow I'm off to Torun.

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