Last summer I got to go on a special trip to Poland with my dad, visiting the town where he was born. My dad was born in October 1939, eight weeks after World War II started. His hometown was a tiny little place called Rastenburg (now: Ketrzyn) in what was then called East Prussia, the very Eastern part of pre-war Germany.
Rastenburg later became known as the location of the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s wartime military headquarters, and also as the place where Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt on Hitler in 1944 tragically failed (watch Tom Cruise playing Stauffenberg in “Valkyrie”).
We start our journey in Rastenburg itself, a town with a pretty castle but probably not much more to offer, if you don’t have a history there. However, it is surrounded by the most beautiful country side, where time seems to have been standing still. Many unpaved roads mean a lot of off-roading in our tiny, little Skoda rental. Beautiful lakes surround us. We are, after all, in the middle of Masuria, the part of Poland famous for its over 2,000 lakes. I wish we could stop for a swim, but we don’t have enough time.
Stork nests can be seen everywhere, and I am wondering where they will deliver all those babies. On the side of the streets vendors offer amber jewelry, the most famous product of the area. I feel like I am part of a fairy tale.
After exploring the town itself, we drive through the forest to visit the Wolf’s Lair, a daunting place. Bunkers with walls up to 30 feet thick. Attempts to completely destroy the complex at the end of the war were unsuccessful in spite of the use of an enormous amount of dynamite, so that eventually the place was simply abandoned and left to decay. Of the room where Stauffenberg detonated his briefcase only the floor remains. It took until 1955 to clear over 54,000 land mines that surrounded the installation.
From the Rastenburg area, we make our way North to the “Frisches Haff” on the Baltic Sea, now known as the Vistula Lagoon, a body of water that’s enclosed by land on three sides and often freezes over in the winter. In the summer, it’s popular with locals and tourists alike for its unparalleled biking trail. After circling three sides of the water, a ferry ride completes the journey and drops the thirsty bikers right next the pretty café and museum that inhabits the old water tower in town.
An hour west of the Haff lies the beautiful city of Gdansk, our final destination. I didn’t know much about Gdansk except for the fact that my dad, his older brother and my grandma fled from Germany to Denmark via Gdansk, taking a ship up North and not returning to their hometown until over 60 years later (Read “Salt to the Sea” by Ruta Sepetys to understand the journey. Ruta’s protagonists end up on the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, the ship which famously got attacked and sank. My dad took a similar ship a few weeks earlier…).
Gdansk has a rich history, being governed and fought for by various nations including itself. In the 1980s, Gdansk was the birthplace of the Solidarność movement, which played a significant role in ending Communist rule in Poland. These days you wouldn’t know it. The city is hustling and bustling, full or market stands along the river walk, crowded with restaurants and bars. Its architecture is stunning, and the food is defined by the best dumplings ever (Pierogi and Kopytka)!
Gdansk suffered immense destruction during the war but was completely rebuilt. Artists and architects were tasked to recreate the Old Town in its historical form. However, all references to Germany such as architectural styles and street names were eliminated. Instead, the emphasis was placed on Dutch and Belgian influences. That’s why a lot of the Old Town streets look like they were taken straight from Amsterdam.
While in Gdansk we stayed at the Hilton right at the river, overlooking the old town, within walking distance of the major attractions and featuring a great roof top bar….we liked it!
It might not be on your radar, but it could be an interesting add-on to your next Europe trip! If you go, don’t forget to drink a Baerenfang, the most typical drink of the region, usually home made from vodka (or similar) and honey…..
Useful links (click on link to be rerouted to product):
Hotel in Gdansk - Hilton Gdansk: Nice rooms with a great view, very central location with underground parking. Awesome rooftop bar!
Hotel in Ketrzyn - Hotel Koch: Honestly not a lot of options in this small town. This hotel was clean with big rooms and a really good breakfast buffet. The home made Baerenfagng is also worth a mention.
Guidebook: DK Eyewitness Guide to Poland Good combination of facts and photos
Novel: “Salt to the Sea” by Ruta Sepetys. I love this novel! The protagonists follow the same route my dad took in early 1945 and it describes the situation in Germany in a chilling way.
Movie: "Valkyrie" with Tom Cruise. Great movie in its own right but also a good history lesson!
Local food: "From a Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food" Dumplings...what else can I say?