You gotta love it when a friend bails on ya. You have tentative plans, to meet for a coffee after work then she calls and says she can’t make it because she got a better offer. Fair enough. I understand that. No harm no foul. Of course, to make it up to she comes back with… “so, wanna go to Poland on Saturday and check out a place Hitler used to live?”
This is my relationship with Monika. She’s as good a friend as you can get, even if she does get better offers from time to time. She’s also a great traveling companion and our (mostly) day trips together, from Anykščiai to Tallinn to the one time we went to Finland just to ride roller coasters are all amazing fun – so when she says do you want to check out a place which can verifiably host a placard stating “Hitler Slept Here” who am I to say “no”?
We started off at 8am (others were supposed to join but in the end didn’t make it) with a quick stop at a gas station to grab a coffee (real coffee shops don’t open on the weekends until 10) then, with GPS plugged in, we hit the road. I experienced parts of Kaunas I’d never seen before (and I’m actually okay with that – it was the “worst street in Kaunas” as well as being where a number of drivers have to take their road tests) but soon we were out of the city and heading south towards Poland.
The drive itself was uneventful, just lots of talking and laughing, until we got about 30 minutes away from our destination, in a little town called Giżycko. The town itself was beautiful, the sun was shining and we passed a tourist information office so we decided to stop. See, Monika is a tour guide (and she leads tours to some pretty cool destinations, including parts of Poland not seen on this particular trip) so stopping and getting guidebooks is a thing we do. And we did. Got a couple of maps, some information on a local fortress (which would come in handy later) and a great local guidebook, in English, for the whole area. The area in question is the Masurian Lake District, a gorgeous bit of real estate, which, I’m sure, in the summer is completely hopping! By this time, though, we were getting a bit hungry so we figured a quick bite before heading into the forest wouldn’t hurt.
For me, food is mostly a social thing. I don’t mind sitting down to a nice, luxurious meal full of great conversation but in general, I’m okay with grabbing a bite and getting to the next thing on our agenda. In this case, that meant a quick stop at “Hot Chicken,” a stand across the street from the tourist office where the 19 year old inside didn’t speak a lick of English and all we knew in Polish was how to say “Thanks.” The menu, however, had some English words, hamburger among them, so we decided a burger apiece was a safe bet. I mean really, how badly can you screw up a hamburger.
Pretty badly it seems.
The bun was stuffed with cabbage, lettuce, some sort of succotash mix of pepper, corn and beans (the meat patty was there somewhere, too) and topped off with more ketchup and mustard than you could reasonably expect for three foot-longs at Dodger stadium. It took us a while just to figure out how to eat it. I went directly for smoosh and chew while Monika took the less messy, eat the salad and toppings first approach. By the end, we needed a serious palate cleanser so grabbed a couple of Cokes before getting back on the road.
The Cokes, though, were still part of the “Share a coke with…” campaign so she was Julia and I was Brat… which was fortuitous since later on we decided it was a good idea to have aliases when stumbling through the bunker.
As we continued on, I was reading the information Monika had printed out about the place. It was fun once I’ve been doing a lot of voice over work lately so I got to use my “English Narration’ voice. Monika was impressed (maybe). She definitely said it didn’t sound like me so that was fun.
By the time we got the Lair, we were ready. The guy at the gate took out money and spoke enough Lithuanian to let us know the price then we were set. A stop at the gift shop, where the woman never got off the phone while helping us, including making a suggestion between two different guide books, complete with walking tours, and we were on our way. So the story of the Wolf’s Lair is Hitler stayed there for 800 or so days between 1941-44, including July 20, 1944 when there was a failed assassination attempt (I suppose that’s redundant, if it hadn’t failed, it wouldn’t have been an attempt – also, the story of this attempt was filmed as Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise). At its height, the Wolf’s Lair housed some 2000 men (and 20 women) including living and working quarters for such high ranking officials as Martin Bormann, Hermann Göring, Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl. Hitler himself left for the final time in November of 1944, just as the Russians were closing in, giving the order to destroy the place. Lots (and I mean LOTS) of bombs later, including the 10 year project to clear 54,000 land mines from the area, and we’ve got a pretty unique tourist attraction.
Thing is, there’s very little in the way of curation. One building originally used as officer’s quarters has been restored and now houses a small cafe with a picture of Hitler’s Hound – evidently he walked the dog daily from 10-11am and you had better have a really damn good reason to interrupt that walk) and bathrooms (and showers??) while the rest of the 6.5 sq. km. facility was left as it was. The buildings are rotting and overgrown, often with only external walls still visible. Hitler’s quarters included a 10m think roof to protect it from bombing raids. As you walk through (there are two paths, Red and Blue) the only way to tell where you are is by the numbers on the buildings (which aren’t always in order) and the path is not marked as clearly as it could be.
Naturally, because the place is in such disrepair, every doorway has a sign in Polish, German, Russian and English declaring it is dangerous and do not enter. Our thought was if it wasn’t actually blocked off, those signs were mere advisory bits and we should explore anyway. Gotta say, there as some creepy shit therein. But only because it was dark (no windows) and rotting. And cold! Holy crap it was cold once you crossed the concrete threshold into any of the building interiors. Unlike other places I’ve been with WWII connections, this one didn’t give you an “evil walk amongst us” vibe. That might have been different if there had been more signs or if the guide book had been updated since 1992 (seriously) but while it was impressive it wasn’t ooga booga. We even tried to add our own creepiness by being incredibly inappropriate and making nazi jokes (we laughed, a lot) but it just didn’t have the gravitas other historical sites have.
One thing it did have though, in the one other buildings which had had some restoration done, was a shooting range where you can fire WWII replica weapons. There was also a small gift table with some faux military things but nothing too exotic. Coming from a place where I can get authentic nazi memorabilia for a song down at the mall, their selection was sleight.
Leaving there, we made our way to one other nearby tourist site, but didn’t go in because even though there had been a number of signs advertising its virtues (like a miniature museum, a “U-Boot” and a tunnel!!) when we got there nothing was in English and it was pricey for what it seemed to offer. We left and headed back to the fortress we’d heard about earlier. On the way there, we drove some amazing old, tree lined roads. I gotta say, no matter what else you want to say about Poland and that area, it’s beautiful. The rapeseed fields were in full bloom, covering the landscape with blankets of yellow (When we stopped to take a picture, we had a funny little encounter with a dog who peed on the car). At times, the sun would come out while gray skies filled the other side of the horizon which created a relief, giving the landscape an unnatural amount of depth and clarity. Just gorgeous!
We made a brief stop to look at a 17th century castle which was right in the middle of the city. It actually took us longer to find it than we expected because it wasn’t set aside with a moat or anything else. There was a restaurant next door. But it was cool! Monika (Julia) decided she wanted one. She didn’t need a big castle, but a wee one like this would be perfect!
The Boyen Fortress (Twierdza Boyen in Polish) was older and in far better shape than the Wolf’s Lair. Again, nothing was in English but there were far better marked paths so we chose the green path, the longest one, and headed out to see what we could see. There wasn’t much, really. And this time we didn’t even have the benefit of a guidebook. What we ended up doing was walking the perimeter, both on top of the walls and along side, with side trips into some of the (what we can only assume were) soldier’s quarters or ammo dumps – or both. Looking at the map, you really don’t get a complete picture for how large this place really is. We didn’t really stop (nothing to read) in our hike and it probably still took the better part of 30-40 minutes to circumnavigate. By the time we made it back to the entrance we were both incredibly hungry and exhausted… but after food (and a big, well-deserved soft serve cone), there was one more thing to do.
We were in the lakes district, after all, so we needed to see some lakes. We plotted out a course and found a little beach area where we could look out over the water and enjoy the view for a few minutes. However, since we weren’t going to go swimming, and we did have a 3 1/2 hour drive ahead of us, a few minutes were all we did spend there. We had seen what we came to see, had a great time doing it and made it back to Kaunas, about 530km round trip, 14 hours after we’d left, refilling at the same station we’d started at (and, it seemed, with the same woman working). Julia and The Brat had returned… but they’ll be back again on yet another adventure soon, I’m sure.