Showerheads & Sustenance -The Eccentricities of Two Travelers (Northern Poland & Berlin #13)

Showerheads! That was the problem again and again and again. In Gdansk, in Berlin, then again in Gdansk, in Olsztyn, and once again in Gdansk. The showerheads were never the same, they were detachable, they were never properly mounted. Adding to that, the water pressure was uneven. Nothing was consistent in these European bathrooms. Every design was different. Bathrooms were a continual problem. Some places skimped on the toiletries, others tried to distract you with stylistic niceties, but the essentials were lacking. Form over function reigned supreme. The little things were overlooked. The towels were too small or too few. The toilet paper ran low and then ran out. Bathrooms are supposed to be a sacred space, but these greeted their patrons with contempt. Never mind worrying about holding onto your wallet, losing a passport, wrecking the rental car, or missing the train. The usual travails of travel were nothing when compared to the incredible array of minor irritations in the bathroom.  And at the pinnacle of these problems were the showerheads.

Risky Proposition – A Shower in Poland

The Shoelace Solution – Nozzles & Hosels
Everybody has their thing. Those small eccentricities which are meaningless to someone else, but which we secretly hold dear to ourselves. Take for instance, my travel companion who was obsessed with the showerheads in our guest houses and hotels to the point that it preoccupied him. The annoyance grew with each new place. At our last two accommodations, the first thing he did after setting his suitcase down was to head straight for the bathroom to examine the showerhead. I could not help but laugh. The showerheads drove him absolutely nuts. I told him this and he agreed with me. At one point I was commandeered into an extended trek around a Gdansk shopping mall in search of the ultimate solution to all our showerhead problems. It was quite simple, all we needed was a pair of shoelaces. Finding and helping him purchase a pair of shoelaces was a moment of immense satisfaction for me. Mainly because I wanted to see just what kind of manic engineering he had in mind. He was certainly up to the challenge.

My friend somehow managed to rig up the shower apparatus to stay firmly in place by using shoelaces to keep the nozzle connected to the hosel (rhyme unintended). After he did this, I was informed that it would prove of great benefit to me as well. This act of benevolence was lost on me for two reasons. The first was that I had already taken a shower that day. Secondly, my idea of a good shower is one with running water. Soap, shampoo and even the most tepid flow of water are more than enough to satisfy my personal hygiene. When it comes to showerheads, we are exact opposites. This has its advantages. One of the reasons my friend and I travel so well together is that we complement each other psychologically and emotionally. Where he cares, I could care less. And when I am emotional, he is even tempered. That is unless it concerns a showerhead.

Tied in Knots – The Shoelace Solution

Habit Forming – Roadside Citadels & Freshly Baked Goods
To be fair, my friend’s mania for shower power is matched by own strange eccentricities. I am a creature of habit to the point that it is physically painful for me to not partake of at least a few repetitive practices while traveling. Because overseas travel is a major disruption to my normal routine, I am forced to compensate through a variety of methods. For example, I alleviate stress while driving by stopping at innumerable petrol stations. For reasons that escape me, I find these to be comforting. They are the highway version of provincial train stations. Everyone is headed somewhere else, an idea that fascinates me. Even the staff look as though they long to leave as soon as possible. A petrol station is a small slice of humanity in perpetual motion. Without ever mentioning this freeway fetish to my friend, I subjected him to endless stops and starts at these roadside citadels. The petrol stations were always there when I needed them. The neon signs, the dutiful clerks, the loitering travelers, the banal conversations, all appealed to me.

My most comforting travel habit in Eastern Europe involves going to get food first thing in the morning. I refuse to suffer a continental breakfast that involves watery orange juice, Danishes filled with mortar, coffee that causes the shakes, and death in a bun warmed over. Fortunately, there is a magnificent alternative, the bakery. I cannot tell you the amount of joy that bakeries on brisk mornings in northern Poland brought to me. The scent of freshly baked pastries, sweet rolls covered in a smattering of powdered sugar and other hot out of the oven delicacies are the culinary equivalent to an aphrodisiac for me. The dark side of this desire occurs when I do not get my hands on a bagful of freshly baked goods by eight a.m. I can barely conceal my anger.

Simply the Best – Baked Goods in Poland

The Eternal Wait – More Than A Mouthful
One morning in Olsztyn, I could not find a bakery open. This sent me on an impromptu tour of the city center as I dashed around every backstreet and alleyway. My hunger grew as my search became futile. After twenty minutes of walking in circles, I scented the wonderful aroma of baked goods wafting down the street. I had finally found an open bakery. There was only one problem. A line stretched out the door and down the street. I secured my place with no less than fifteen people in front of me. The wait was excruciating. Every couple of minutes another satisfied Pole would emerge from the bakery grasping a bag full of goodies. It did not take me long to go from envy to anger. By now it was past 8:30 a.m. and I still did not have my breakfast at hand. Of course, this was a first-world problem, but at that moment I could have cared less. I wanted my baked goods and would stubbornly stand on that sidewalk for an eternity to secure them.

After what seemed like forever, I was finally allowed inside to select a substantial proportion of Danishes and rolls. Marching back to the guest house, I could not have been happier or hungrier. I usually do not like to eat and walk at the same time, but I could not resist devouring several rolls along the way. When I arrived back at the room, my friend had already showered. His shoelace contraption must have worked rather well because he did not offer an opinion on the showerhead. Instead, he said “you sure were gone a long time.” I replied, “Yeah, I had trouble finding a bakery.” I was too busy stuffing my mouth full of rolls to say anything else. Showerheads and sustenance had saved us.

Coming soon: Buried Beneath – Digging Into The Fuhrerbunker (Northern Poland & Berlin #14)

Beyond The Border – Slubice to Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #7)

I would not quite call it a screeching halt, but it was certainly abrupt. The train from Gdansk to Berlin ended at Rzepin. Every passenger on the train was suddenly standing outside a station that was far from their final destination. I assumed buses would take us onward to Berlin. I was wrong. The bus from Rzepin would only travel as far as Slubice, just east of the German border. Not that anyone told us that at the time. The railway workers’ strike in Germany had ended a couple of hours earlier, but those trying to get from Gdansk to Berlin were left with bus travel as the only option. The bus journey from Rzepin to Slubice was through heavily forested land interspersed with fields still sodden from spring rains.

More than a memory – Red Army monument near Erkner

Altered Plans – The Local Bus
We were in Pomerania which became part of Poland in 1945. Prior to that, the region was part of the Third Reich. When Germany lost the war in 1945, the peace process moved Poland’s borders westward to the Oder River. At the same time, the Soviet Union’s border with Poland moved westward as well (present day western Ukraine). A huge shift in population took place as hundreds of thousands of Germans and Poles were also moved westward. This was at the behest of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin who wanted as much of a buffer as possible between the Soviet Union and Germany. The Germans had invaded Russia/Soviet Union twice in the thirty-one years prior to the shift in borders. Stalin was adamant that this not happen again.

The Allied leaders had little choice but to agree with Stalin since the Red Army occupied this territory. The alteration of borders was viewed as just punishment for German militarism and the Nazi regime inflicting an incredible amount of violence on Eastern Europe. The Oder River would now function as the border between Poland and Germany. Before we crossed the Oder, the bus pulled up to a station in Slubice. A few people began to get off the bus, then more. Finally, a fellow passenger told us that this bus would go no further. We were told to take another bus. Which one was the question? When in doubt follow everyone else. This meant standing in a grassy spot while a few self-anointed leaders conversed with a stocky man who turned out to be the driver of another bus.

I soon learned that we would be using what was termed a “local bus”. This time we held onto our luggage while boarding. Surprisingly the “local bus” was not any less comfortable than the last one. Soon we were weaving through the streets of Slubice until we came to a bridge that crossed the Oder River. Slubice and Frankfurt an der Oder used to be a single German city (named after the latter). The border cut the city in two. Poles soon inhabited the city east of the river, which was named Slubice after a medieval Slavic settlement in the area.

In the woods – Between the Polish border and Berlin

Historical Reminders – The Not-So-Distant Past
At a glance, it was rather obvious Frankfurt an der Oder was a rather recent construction. From what I could see, the architecture did not predate the mid-20th century and many of the buildings looked younger than that. The city had been abandoned by German civilians in 1945 as they fled before the Red Army’s arrival. Word had passed fast of the bestial cruelties Soviet soldiers were inflicting upon German civilians. Women were raped and men shot or tortured. German property was looted, while homes and municipal buildings were torched. This was revenge for Germany doing the same thing when they invaded the Soviet Union four years earlier.

As the bus traveled west out of Frankfurt an der Oder, it passed through heavily wooded areas. I could only imagine the fighting that took place in these forests during the Battle of Berlin. There is no telling how many artifacts and bones are still lying hidden in these woods covered by dust and moss. While trying to imagine the fighting that took place here near the end of World War II, I suddenly realized that I had no idea where we were. I began to look for a village name on road signs. No sooner had I spotted a sign for Erkner, then the bus came to a halt at an intersection.

I glanced out the window and at the woods where I saw a monument on a small promontory. Atop it was a red star, the official symbol of the Soviet Union. I have seen these same monuments in other parts of Eastern Europe. In Hungary, many of them are surrounded by iron fences which protect these monuments from vandalism. The monument near Erkner was rather small by the standards of Soviet monuments. Despite being surrounded by woods it was large enough to be notable. This reminded me that wherever you are in Germany, its wartime past is never far away. The Germany that exists today still cannot escape the recent past. That past informs every aspect of the present.

Final journey – Erkner S-Bahn station

An Indirect Journey – From Past to Present
Erkner was the final stop on this bus ride which had now taken us well beyond the German border to the edge of Berlin. Erkner was home to a station on the S-Bahn. From here it was only half an hour to the center of Berlin. Though the journey was not over, adventure no longer heightened the experience. What started out as a direct train journey from Gdansk to Berlin lasting a little over seven hours, turned into an eight-hour trip on one train, two buses, and Berlin’s S-Bahn. The Polish portion of the trip was efficient, the German part a logistical nightmare.

My travel companion, who is twenty-five years older than me, took it all in stride. He showed patient and resolve. I was exhausted and satisfied. The opportunity to see different parts of Poland and Germany by bus turned out to be fascinating. The residue of wartime history was still alive. This reminded me of how much history Germany had inflicted upon itself during the 20th century. Before long, I was standing in the center of Berlin for the first time since 2008. I wondered if the city had changed much over the past fifteen years. Soon enough, I would find out.

Coming soon: A Change In Plans – Busing The Backroads To Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #6)

A Change In Plans – Busing The Backroads To Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #6)

As we neared the German border, the rail journey between Gdansk and Berlin could not have been going better. I had a cold soft drink in my hand, a good book at my side, a close friend with whom I conversed, and the greenery of spring could be seen from the window. The rural landscape of northwestern Poland was beginning to bloom. Nothing could have been finer than those first few hours on the train. Fellow passengers in the compartment were quiet and respectful. There were very few stops on the initial part of the journey. This was not what I had expected.

When booking the ticket, I was surprised to see that the time to travel between Gdansk and Berlin on the initial journey was much longer than the return journey. The difference in travel times was almost an hour and a half. I figured this had to do with the types of trains used by the different national railways. Stereotypically, this meant in my mind a Polish train for the first and longer journey. The return journey would then be done by a German train. This assumption was most likely wrong, but even for someone who is extremely pro-Eastern Europe, old stereotypes of German efficiency remain. On this journey, I would be disavowed of such notions.

Rural road – A path through Pomerania

Grounded – Trust Issues
I am of the mindset that success should never quite be trusted while traveling. The phrase “success is assured” terrifies me. My mentality has been informed by specific travel incidents where I learned the hard way that plans can go awry due to an unforeseen event. I still have flashbacks to specific incidents on planes. For instance, while readying for takeoff in Prague the pilot announced one of the airplane’s wheels did not have enough air. The flight was cancelled. This resulted in an extra day of travel to get back home. On another occasion, the plane was getting ready to leave the gate to begin a trip to Hungary when the pilot noticed a bird had struck the plane near an engine on the previous flight. That flight was cancelled as well. My travels by airplane to the region have been riddled with delays. This has occurred so frequently that I now expect it to occur. When there are no delays, I am in a state of disbelief. By comparison, my train travels in Eastern Europe have only had minor delays. The worst of these happened in Romania when an hour and a half journey took twice that long. This was made less annoying by the scenery in Transylvania which made the delay palatable.

I did not expect a delay between Gdansk and Berlin. My expectations were not met. My train was due to cross the German border at Frankfurt an der Oder when the ticket inspector came to my compartment and announced that the train would go no further than the next station. It did not take long to learn why, there was a railway workers’ strike in Germany. This meant the journey by train could not continue. Instead, everyone would disembark from the plane, where buses were waiting to take us onward to Berlin or at least that was what I assumed. What made the railway workers’ strike maddening was that it had effectively ended at 11:00 a.m. on this same morning. When passengers were told of the cancellation it was already nearing 1:00 p.m. Unfortunately, it would take a while before regular services could be resumed.  This news led many passengers to roll their eyes. The cancellation was bizarre, but nothing could be done except to take the bus.

On the rails – A Polish train heading towards its destination

The Unexpected – Bigger Is Better
When we arrived at the next train station everyone disembarked and made their way towards a couple of buses. Passengers tossed their bigger bags into the luggage storage. Me and my travel companion followed along with everyone else. We then took our seat on the bus. I told myself that we would only arrive in Berlin a bit later than planned. Since we had no plans for this day, the change in schedule and services seemed doable. The only problem was one intensely personal to me. Buses are my least favorite form of travel. They are usually hotter than normal, with cramped quarters. Bus journeys make me extremely drowsy, but not enough so to sleep. Somehow, sitting in a seat while doing absolutely nothing is exhausting. This is strange because the seats are often comfortable. Buses have a way of prolonging travel to the point of somnolescent agony.

The only good thing I could say about this unexpected bus trip was that we were already more than halfway to Berlin. I could handle this. I also told myself that it could have been worse. What if the railway company had not arranged for bus transport? That would have turned the trip into an odyssey, rather than a mild adventure. I settled into a seat just behind the driver, satisfied that I would have a good view of the road to Berlin. This proved to be naive. While the view was good, I also had a perfect view of the driver’s ability to nearly run into other cars. My companion was particularly frightened by several near misses. The bus driver did not seem concerned. The other drivers on the road were the ones who were forced into reactionary decisions. The bus driver’s strategy of hogging the road was sound. He had the biggest vehicle by far which meant all other vehicles were forced to get out of his way. My companion spent the time “oohing”, “aahing”, and jumping as he watched other vehicles do their best to avoid being hit by the bus. I sympathized with him, but refused to admit I was just as concerned.

Pick up artist – Polish bus in the countryside.

Undue Stress – The Bus To Berlin
I suggested to my companion that he should stop watching the road. I knew from previous travel experiences by bus in the region that it was best to distract oneself. Near misses are just that. They can serve to cause the passenger undue stress. The best thing to do is ignore the driver’s seemingly suicidal tendencies. This was the same advice I gave him on our airport transfer in Gdansk. I knew from experience how nightmarish close calls can be. In these cases, ignorance is bliss. The journey proceeded according to the alternate plan for less than an hour. Then everyone was told they would have to make another transfer. This bus was not going beyond the Polish border. That meant we would now be changing buses. At this point I just wanted to get to Berlin. I began to wonder when that might happen.

Click here for: Beyond The Border – Slubice to Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #7)

The Traditional Experience – Gdansk to Berlin by Train (Northern Poland & Berlin #5)

Some things never change and that can be a good thing. While taking the train from Gdansk to Berlin I was reminded of how much I love rail travel. Half an hour after the train left Gdansk Glowny (Main Station), a young woman appeared in the corridor outside of my compartment. In a matter of seconds, she had opened the door and beautiful Polish was flowing from her lips. Unfortunately, my woeful lack of linguistic skills rendered her words unintelligible. That hardly mattered since I could tell by her apron that she was taking orders for food and beverages. I have only seen this service offered one other time while traveling in Eastern Europe.

Last summer when I took a train from Lake Balaton to Budapest in Hungary, there was one part of the railway carriage where passengers could purchase food and beverages. The rarity of this service attracted me to it. The same held true for the Polish train. I felt a compulsion to order a drink just because I could. The young lady was ready and willing to take my order with her trusty notepad in hand. This reminded me of a young man who did the same thing on a mid-morning journey I took twelve years earlier from Warsaw to Krakow. He had also appeared at the same time as the young lady on this train. I found this service rather charming, a quaint reminder of the way train travel used to be in Eastern Europe, or at least that is the way I want to imagine it.

Finding the way – List of stations in Poland on the railway from Gdansk to Berlin

Romantic Railways – Imagination Versus Reality
The first time I started thinking seriously about traveling to Eastern Europe, I imagined a seamless experience. I would ride the rails from one city to the next. Trains would be on time and the carriages clean, if a bit outdated. The stations would still have a bit of their old sparkle even if a century had passed since their better days. As so often happens with romantic notions of travel, my imagination ran far beyond reality. A Slovenian friend was the first to disavow my rose-tinted notion of the railways in Eastern Europe. Prior to my first visit. I mentioned how much I was looking forward to riding the rails throughout the region. She looked at me with surprise and said, “trains are so slow.” I discovered she never took the train unless it was the only option. Slovenia is known for mountains rather than railways.

I soon understood why after my first long railway journey between Sarajevo and Budapest. It was an excruciating test of patience. The train crawled along at a snail’s pace. A couple of hours into the journey, I realized that a bicycle would have been a much faster form of transport. To say the train moved slowly would be an understatement. This was locomotion at a glacial pace. After that journey, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that trains in Bosnia move slower than they did one hundred years ago. The railways were incredibly regressive. I adjusted my expectations accordingly. This confrontation with an alternate reality, rather than the one I imagined, disabused me of any romantic railway notions. This Polish train still had a whiff of nostalgia around it. The food and beverage services were a way to step back in time. It also offered a compelling reason to take the rain, as if I needed another one.

Passing on through – Scene from a station in Poland

Railway Representatives – The Height of Professionalism
A railway ride from Gdansk to Berlin was an opportunity too good to pass up. While the bus was cheaper, and flights even cheaper than the bus, the phrase “you get what you pay for” immediately came to mind. What you get on buses and airplanes is a combination of irritation and exhaustion. The era of 21st century mass transport in Eastern Europe has ushered in an array of travel options besides the railway. For me, air and bus travel only offer the benefits of speed and low cost. Everything else is an irritation. A sort of service without smiles. That is why I always choose a railway ride if possible. I might be in the minority, but seeing the ticket taker dressed in a shirt, skirt, and immaculately tailored dress coat lets the passenger know railway staff take their job seriously.

Polish National Railways is a representation of the nation as much as it is a form of transport. An image of professionalism and pride is radiated by the staff. This is something that the tumultuous changes in Poland after 1989 did not hinder. Efficient and effective services can still be found. For all the hand wringing over the decline of national airlines in Eastern Europe and the rise of uber-affordable ones, railways are one aspect of my Eastern European travel experience that has changed very little since I made my first forays into the region over a decade ago.

Rolling down the line – In Poland

Anticipating Arrival – A Heightened Experience
The train from Gdansk to Berlin was neither too slow nor high speed. It traveled at a brisk pace between cities and then made short stops to pick up more passengers. An aspect of this rail journey I found particularly fascinating was watching the compartments creeping ever closer to capacity any time we passed through a city. When we started in Gdansk, a very large and provincial city, the train was nowhere near capacity. The longer the journey continued, the more passengers the train picked up. This served to heighten the experience. It was as though a crowd were slowly gathering over many hours in expectation of a coming attraction.

The anticipation of arrival grew as the train sped towards the German border. Some of this was a sense of relief for those who had been on the train from start to finish. Others were surely eager to arrive at their destination. I was personally excited because this would only be my second time in Berlin. The first time was now a fading memory. It had become lost in the haze of middle age. Back then I arrived and departed from the German capital by air. Besides the obligatory stamp at passport control, I do not remember anything else about my arrival in Berlin. I had a feeling this railway journey would stay in my memory much longer. I was soon proved correct.

Click here for: A Change In Plans – Busing The Backroads To Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #6) 

The Leavers’ Dance – Thursday in Gdansk (Northern Poland & Berlin #4)

Arriving in Gdansk on a Thursday was perfect symmetry. Thursdays have always been my favorite day of the week. They fill with me expectation and hope. With the weekend just around the corner, I begin to anticipate what dreams may come. The future is pregnant with possibility. Fridays do not come close to eliciting the same emotions from me. They are the starting guns which announce the weekend, but the moment Friday begins, I feel time already ticking away on the weekend. This is unlike Thursdays, which offer infinite options. On Thursdays, anything seems possible. By Friday, the options have narrowed considerably. There is not much room for movement by the time Saturday arrives. Thus, there is nothing quite like the promise of Thursdays. And what could be more invigorating than arriving in Gdansk on my favorite day of the week? I could think of nothing better. Unfortunately, I could think of something way worse. That would be leaving Gdansk on Friday.

Fleeting glimpse – Gdansk Glowny (Main Train Station)

Tantalizing Possibilities – A First & Last Dance
On that first Thursday in Gdansk my travel companion and I spent the afternoon in a state of trance as we strolled half asleep through the Old Town. A full range of tantalizing possibilities unfolded in front of our eyes. Everywhere we looked, the architecture evoked history. Though my friend was twenty-five years older than me, I was impressed with his ability to keep going despite a lack of rest. We managed to make our way around much of the Old Town while sampling the delights of St. Catherine’s and St. Mary’s Churches. The experience was nothing short of surreal. Wandering through those massive interiors in a sleep-deprived stupor made it feel like we had walked into another world. In a sense we had. There was nothing in my experience that could compete with churches of such size and scale in a provincial Eastern European city.

If the churches had been in Warsaw, I would not have found them nearly as surprising. To see them in Gdansk was a startling experience. They confirmed all that I had read about the wealth and importance of Gdansk from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance period. Gdansk was the showpiece of northern Poland and from the look of its clean swept cobblestones, sparkling spires, and townhouses coated in confectionary colors, the city still prospered. By the time jet lag ended this initial foray into the Old Town, visions of Gdansk were dancing in our heads. Too bad we were experiencing our first and last dance with Gdansk on this day. There was no use tiptoeing around the Old Town. We had to confront the impossible and see as much as imaginable.

The scale of the Old Town was positively monumental. Most Old Towns in Europe feel quaint and homey, Gdansk looked and felt gigantic. Every building spoke volumes about the city’s historical importance. It was easy to see why no less a historical personage than Frederick the Great had remarked that whoever controlled Gdansk, “was more master of Poland than any king ruling there.” Gdansk was one of the linchpins upon which the history of Poland turned. On multiple occasions, the city’s promise had been realized. Sometimes that promise took on very dark designs by Nazis, German nationalists, and Teutonic Knights. Many more times, Gdansk’s history took a more positive turn as tradesmen, scientists, innovators, and visionary leaders both Polish and German built upon the city’s economic and political might.

Mirror image – Bleary eyed in Gdansk

The Hangover – A Planned Retreat
The ecstasy that filled me after that first walk around Gdansk was decidedly lacking on Friday morning. It was time for hope and expectation to take a backseat to reality. My travel companion and I fumbled through our belongings as we repacked our bags for a train trip to Berlin. Gdansk was being put in a holding pattern. Our imminent departure to Berlin was due that morning. Usually, a trip by train feels me with optimism. Not this morning. Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I tried to focus on getting us to Gdansk Glowny (Main Train Station) half an hour prior to departure.

This would give us time to purchase a few provisions prior to the journey. Namely, a bit of breakfast from the nearest bakery and most importantly for me, the most powerful coffee zlotys could buy. At that moment, I was seeing the world in super slow motion. Back home, it was only an hour after midnight. The cobwebs in my head, reddish tint to my eyes and the shakiness of my disposition were all signs that my biological clock was stuck in a very different time zone. The sun may have been beaming brightly, but I felt like a hangover was happening. Yesterday had been a dream, now for the morning after. We were leaving Gdansk way too soon. I had no one to blame but myself for this departure less than a day after our arrival.

My friend wanted to visit Berlin and I ad readily agreed to his proposal. He would be visiting there for the first time. It would be a return trip for me. My plan had been to visit Berlin as soon as possible so we could make a swift return to Poland. This seemed like a good idea at the time. Now my body was saying otherwise. My travel companion was not doing much better as he tried to stay in lockstep with me. We both were lamenting the fact that Berlin was a six-hour train ride from Gdansk. Somewhere in my muddled mind, I had the idea that Gdansk was very close to the German border. I was shocked to discover otherwise. All those years of traveling in comparatively smaller Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia and Serbia caused me to forget that Poland was a much more sizable country.

Sightseeing – In Gdansk

Fleeting Glimpses – Matters of Time
Getting to Berlin would be mildly time-consuming, but considering the state of my mind and body it would not be much fun. This was the exact opposite of how I felt during my first trip to Berlin fifteen years before this one. Berlin had been my primary focus when I first traveled to Eastern Europe. This time, my mind had relegated the German capital to a side show. The main attraction for me was now in Poland, which we were leaving way too soon. I mitigated my disappointment with thoughts of a triumphant return. For now, I would have to satisfy myself with fleeting glimpses of the Polish countryside.

Click here for: The Traditional Experience – Gdansk to Berlin by Train (Poland & Berlin #5)

Dreaming With My Eyes Open – Wide Awake in Gdansk (Northern Poland & Berlin #3)

Damn the itinerary, full speed ahead. That was the attitude my travel companion and I formulated upon arrival at our accommodation in the Old Town of Gdansk. Neither of us had slept on the transatlantic flight to Amsterdam, nor on the short hop to Gdansk. We had now been up for 24 straight hours. Going to sleep at this point would have been self-defeating. It was one in the afternoon, the sky cloudless, and the sun beaming. I am quite sure that both of us could have slept through the sunlight. That would have been bad for our biological clocks because we would almost certainly be wide awake during the night. Previous trips to Europe taught both of us that it is better to tough out the rest of daylight hours before retiring for a well-deserved night of rest. That would get us back on a regular schedule and lessen the effect of jet lag. We were trying to trick our bodies back to normal. The upshot was that there would be no rest for the bleary eyed.

Looking up – St Catherine’s Church in Gdansk

Investigative Effort – An Afternoon Stroll
One of the last things Rafal did before he dropped us off at our accommodation was point out the Golden Gate, the renaissance portal to Gdansk. With an introduction like that, it was impossible not to investigate further. We might have been walking zombies, but Gdansk’s architecture was sure to leave us wide eyed. We were soon taking an afternoon stroll through Gdansk. The foot traffic was light with very few tourists to be found. This was one of the advantages of arriving at mid-week in the off season. Another was that most of Gdansk’s citizens were still at work. Poles were going about their daily business while we had the sights mostly to ourselves. I had been put in charge of planning our itinerary for his trip. My planning consisted of setting aside days in Gdansk, Berlin, and Olsztyn.

With only a few exceptions, specifically the Neues Museum in Berlin, Ravensbruck Concentration Camp at Furstenberg, Malbork Castle and the Samsonov Monument in the countryside of northern Poland and Westerplatte on the Baltic Sea near Gdansk, the rest of our itinerary consisted of wandering around where we happened to be and looking for anything of historical interest. That worked well with Gdansk, which is a dream for history lovers. From the Middle Ages right up through modern times, a wealth of places redolent of the city’s rich past are easily accessible on foot. Among the most prominent are its churches. These were among the most imposing pieces of architecture I have ever seen.

Reaching out to touch the sky – Spires in Gdansk

A Confrontational Approach – The Churches of Gdansk
I am no stranger to churches of all shapes, architectural styles and sizes in Eastern Europe. Gothic churches have always impressed and intimidated me. As much for their relative rarity as their menacing stylistic elements. Baroque churches are prolific to the point that my eyes now glaze over when I enter them. While there are fewer examples of Romanesque architecture in the region, the ones I have been lucky enough to visit felt as ancient as the Romans. Each of these architectural styles has much to recommend them, but for sheer size, sturdiness and awe-inspiring belief, nothing comes close to the massive brick behemoths rising from the center of Gdansk.

There is no avoiding the churches of Gdansk. These massive set pieces originated in medieval times and seemed to have only grown larger since then. No matter in which direction these churches are approached, they confront the viewer. Sizing them up is not easy. They are sized on a scale that goes beyond the superhuman. Daunting and humbling are two words that immediately come to mind. The exteriors project spiritual power. They impose their presence on the cityscape and are impossible to avoid. There was no question about the central role played by religion in the history of Gdansk. For that matter, judging by the reverence with which the churches are still held today, the role of religion is still paramount in the lives of the city’s inhabitants.

Now I know what it is like to be dreaming with my eyes open. From the moment my friend and I began walking around the city center we could not help but notice the massive churches looming over the surrounding streets. They were so spectacular in scale that I could hardly believe what I was seeing. From an architectural, historical, and spiritual perspective these churches demanded to be visited. The problem was where to start. Our initial visit to Gdansk was due to last less than a single day. No worries because we would be coming back to spend several more days in the city. This first visit would give us a sense of what was to come. It did not take long to find out. After going to a currency exchange, we noticed the looming presence of a nearby church. This one was some distance from the most heavily trafficked areas of the Old Town. The church stood by itself, commanding the immediate area around it.

A look back – St Catherine’s Church in Gdansk

Miraculous Conception – St. Catherine’s Church
Despite being near exhaustion, the first church my friend and I visited in Gdansk opened our eyes wider. St. Catherine’s Church just so happened to be the oldest one in Gdansk. The brick gothic structure could hardly have been more noticeable. The Baroque tented roof was topped by a 76-meter-high spire. The church’s history reaches all the way back to the late 12th century. It was expanded on many occasions over the past eight hundred years and has survived various manmade disasters. These include Napoleon’s troops setting up workshops inside, massive aerial bombardment during World War II, and multiple fires, the most recent of which damaged the roof in 2006.

From what we could see, the church’s interior and exterior was in fairly good shape, especially considering its age and the vicissitudes of Polish history. The interior was a rather austere affair, leaving a great deal of room for imagination. The venerable nature of the church was difficult to comprehend. The fact it had risen time and again despite the city’s tumultuous past was a miracle of both the spirit and human will. As we would later discover, the same could be said for Gdansk.

Click here for: The Leavers’ Dance – Thursday in Gdansk (Northern Poland & Berlin #4)

The Miracle of Modern Travel & Modern Poland (Northern Poland & Berlin #2)

The miracle of modern travel never ceases to be amazing. One afternoon you are a stone’s throw from the American capital, the next you are being whisked away from Gdansk Lech Walesa Airport and taken to your lodgings in the city’s atmospheric old town. Two flights had taken my travel companion and me from northern Virginia to Amsterdam and then onward to Gdansk. Our initial journey to Europe was the travel version of a hop, skip, and a jump. We landed not far from the Baltic Sea just sixteen hours after we departed from Dulles. I could hardly believe our luck. The flights had been flawless with on-time departures and arrivals. This was how things were supposed to be. Our trip had started as well as could be expected. Soon it would get even better.

Right on time – Gdansk Lech Walesa Airport (Credit: Andrzej Otrebski)

Going Abroad – By The Baltic
A barrel-chested man in charge of our airport transfer met us a minute after we set foot in the arrival hall. Rafal was a stocky fellow, broad shouldered with a firm handshake. I soon discovered that he was only a few years younger than me and a native of Gdansk. Pulling away from the terminal, Rafal asked us where we were from. I replied, “America.” He repeated my response rather whimsically as though we were something of a novelty. I then asked Rafal if he had ever been to the United States. “No. I have only lived in Poland, Sweden, and Italy.” I assumed that Rafal was one of the millions of Poles who had gone abroad to work after the country joined the European Union in 2004. I asked him whether he liked Italy or Sweden better. His answer was ambiguous. On one hand, “Italy is a great life, but the money is not very good.” On the other, “In Sweden the money is good, but the life is not so interesting.”

Rafal’s mention of Sweden triggered a memory. It reminded me that a couple of other Poles I met while traveling in Eastern Europe told me they had also gone there to work. Sweden makes sense as a workplace for those living in northern Poland. It is a ferry ride across the Baltic from the tri-cities of Gdansk, Gdynia (Poland’s largest port) and Sopot (seaside resort town). While we had not yet seen the Baltic, the sea was already making its presence felt in Gdansk. As soon as we set foot outside the airport there was a chill in the air. This brought back memories of Riga, further eastward and like Gdansk not far off the Baltic. Twelve years before, I visited the Latvian capital. Unfortunately, I caught a horrible cold due to the blustery and damp conditions. That was in the autumn. This visit to Gdansk coincided with springtime, but it certainly did not feel like it. The climate made it feel like winter was only a few weeks away. While we were in Gdansk, the temperature would average just 10 C (50 F).

  Smooth sailing – Highway near Gdansk

Proof Positive – Smooth Sailing
As Rafal weaved his way through traffic and into the city center, I noticed how the drivers in Gdansk were all maintaining a reasonable speed. No one was driving wildly. While a few drivers surpassed the speed limit, in general everyone was obeying the traffic laws. This being Eastern Europe, I was expecting a little less self-control and a little more get the hell out of my way. The Poles seemed to have adopted the customs of other northern European countries. Conservativism on the road was a welcome respite from what I usually experienced in Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. My travel companion thought otherwise. He was a bit more alarmed by Rafal’s aggressive instincts. I told my friend that the best thing he could do was to keep his eye off the road.

Meanwhile, I was fixated on the road. This had nothing to do with Rafal’s driving. Instead, I could hardly believe the wonderful condition of the highway between Gdansk’s airport and the city center. The tarmac was as smooth and well-maintained as any I had ever seen. It reminded of the road conditions in Austria. The same could be said for Gdansk airport, which I had also noticed was gleaming. These two pieces of Polish infrastructure proved to be the rule rather than the exception. This was a pleasant surprise. A decade ago, I remember reading articles about the dire state of Poland’s roads. Since then, Poland has undergone a massive upgrade in infrastructure. The highways in and around Gdansk were proof of positive changes.

Economically, Poland has moved forward more than any other country east of the old Iron Curtain. Funding from the European Union to improve infrastructure has been well spent. There have also been large inflows of investment in western Poland by German firms. Poland continues to offer excellent business opportunities for international investors. It has a less costly labor force than central and western European countries. The populace is well-educated with a strong work ethic. The economic strides made by Poland since 1989 have been remarkable. I imagine that Rafal was symbolic of these. He no longer worked abroad in the European Union. Now there were plenty of ways for him to earn a decent living in his homeland.

New developments – Gdansk

Moving Forward – State of Development
It became obvious to me only a few minutes after arriving in Poland that the country was now at the stage of advanced development. I had seen this before in earlier visits to Warsaw and Krakow, but since those cities are respectively, the administrative and historical capitals of Poland, I assumed they were showcases for the country. To see something similar in Gdansk was a revelation. I had read beforehand that the city was prosperous. Seeing it for myself was much more impressive. It was hard to imagine that less than two generations have passed since Gdansk and the rest of Poland were under communist rule.

The economic changes in Poland have been rapid, progressive, and forward thinking. The benefits of economic and infrastructure development have spread far beyond Warsaw and Krakow. They can now be found in many other Polish cities. Gdansk has a tradition of capitalism, enterprise and investment that goes back centuries. To the Poles’ credit they have built upon that legacy and recreated the city as an economic powerhouse in northern Poland. The ride from Gdansk’s airport to the city center only took half an hour. That is how long it took for Gdansk to make a magnificent first impression upon me. It would not be the last time.

Click here for: Dreaming With My Eyes Open – Wide Awake in Gdansk (Northern Poland & Berlin #3)

North By Northwest to Gdansk – Go East Old Men (Northern Poland & Berlin #1)

North by Northwest. Those words not only refer to one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films, they also refer to a plan I contrived to take in Berlin for a few days, but nothing more than that. My travel companion on this trip specifically requested a visit to Berlin, a place he had never been before. Five and a half years go we had traveled together to Eastern Europe, but never made it any closer to Berlin than Krakow. This time was going to be different. He left the trip planning to me. As such, my job was to incorporate several days in Berlin. Fair enough. I thoroughly enjoyed Berlin during my first visit. That visit was exhaustively planned and executed. I could never do that type of regimented travel again. Neither me nor my friend would suffer such an itinerary. I was now in my early 50’s and my travel companion in his mid-70’s. We relied on curiosity to infuse our energy and interest levels. We could do a few days in Berlin. Best of all, a majority of our journey would be spent in northern Poland, taking in other less famous cities and towns.

An astonishing city – Gdansk Old Town

Gravitational Pull – East of Center
Finding my way back to Berlin started my mind racing through a multitude of options. I formulated the idea of wrapping a visit to Berlin around a journey to places neither of us have ever visited before. Researching flights, I was secretly satisfied to find that Berlin was a bit too costly as our point of arrival. This meant finding a cost-effective option in the general vicinity of the German capital. My idea of “general vicinity” was expansive, incorporating a radius of up to 500 kilometers in any direction. As always, my interest drew me eastward.

I began searching for cities on the map that were within a day’s travel to Berlin by road or rail. Flying was forbidden on this trip other than our Atlantic puddle jumps to and from home. Short flights between airports are anything but romantic. Riding the rails or even the dreaded bus journey might provide unforgettable experiences for better and worse. I had already been to Dresden so that did not appeal to me. The same was true for Prague. It did not take me long to shift my gaze to Poland. Specifically, its western regions which I had yet to visit. The first place that came to mind was Poznan, where I knew a Polish historian who told me that I should visit him there one day. The problem was that our conversation took place over a decade ago. Since then, he had moved to Germany.

Since flights into Poznan were neither prevalent nor affordable, that option soon fell by the wayside. I then looked further north to Gdansk, a city I found to be intriguing for a variety of reasons. I was vaguely familiar with Gdansk because a close American friend of mind had visited the city during the mid-1990s. He had always spoken highly of its colorful architecture. He had spoken less highly of the elderly Polish women who dyed their hair a range of radiantly bizarre colors. His comment on the local color stuck in my mind. Gdansk is nothing if not colorful, both historically and architecturally.

Trading spaces – Map of the Hanseatic League in the 15th century

Hanseatic History – A League of Their Own
As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time studying the Cold War, Gdansk was also familiar to me as the city with shipyards where the Solidarity movement began. The movement played a seminal role in the collapse of communism. There was no higher commendation in new Eastern Europe. The Lenin Shipyards were famous for the resistance shown by workers there in the 1970’s and 80’s. From what I had read over the past decade, the shipyards were also in terminal decline. The industry was no longer viable, but history made it hard to scuttle such an important part of Poland’s recent past.

The fact that Gdansk’s economy has moved beyond shipbuilding is cause for celebration. Gdansk, like the rest of Poland, has developed in new and exciting economic directions since 1989. For many years, it was second only to Warsaw in drawing in foreign-direct investment. One of these developments has been the growth of tourism. Gdansk has become a favored holiday destination for Poles and foreigners alike. There is not only architecture and history, but also the nearby resort town of Sopot on the Baltic Sea. There is also the port city of Gdynia.   The appeal of Gdansk starts with its history. The Solidarity movement dominates what most people know of Gdansk’s past. Researching the city, I discovered there was more depth to its history than I could have ever imagined. Gdansk, also famously known by its German name of Danzig, grew to be one of the most prosperous cities in Europe during medieval times. This was due to the Hanseatic League, a trading confederation that began with a few northern German cities and grew to encompass cities such as Gdansk and Riga on the Baltic Sea.

Back to Berlin – View of the German capital (Credit: dronepicr)

Proving Ground – A City on The Rise
The League was created to protect the trading interests of its members. It became the premier trade organization in northern Europe during the late Middle Ages. Even after the Hanseatic League went into decline, Gdansk continued to be remarkably prosperous. The city achieved virtual autonomy, only having to make tribute payments to the Polish king. The wealth Gdansk accrued through trade is still conspicuous in the incredible architecture which can be found in cities such as Gdansk. Unfortunately, much of the architecture in Gdansk was reduced to rubble by Soviet bombing campaigns near the end of World War II. The city held true to its history with an amazing reconstruction after the war ended.

Gdansk has been a city on the rise ever since that time. This makes it an appealing destination. Gdansk looked to be well worth a visit. Of course, the price would have to be right. I could barely believe my eyes when I found a round trip flight from Washington, DC at a bargain rate. I booked the flight in a matter of minutes. Our trip would start and end in Gdansk. There would be a four-day visit to Berlin. The rest of the time would be spent in Gdansk and traveling around northern Poland to different historic sites. There was so much to see that I could hardly wait.

Coming soon: The Miracle of Modern Travel & Modern Poland (Poland & Berlin #2)

Silence, Shadows & A Single Shot (Searching For The Suicide Of Alexander Samsonov Part 10)

Arriving at the Samsonov Monument felt anti-climactic. This had more to do with the experience, rather than the place. A long-awaited goal had finally been achieved. Now the question suddenly became, “What next?” After scrutinizing the monument, noting its condition, the cemetery candles sitting at its base, and the shiny plaque affixed to the front, it was time to soak in the atmosphere surrounding the monument. One might think that any place associated with a suicide would be creepy or sinister, perhaps both. In this case, it was neither.

Keeper of the Flame – Tablet in Polish at the Samsonov Monument

Remote Work – Laying It Out
The forest was fragrant with the smell of spring. Nature was apparent everywhere except for the road which fronted the monument. Tree branches and their blooming leaves filtered the light. There was nothing ominous about the monument or the immediate area, no trash or debris to be found. The monument’s relative remoteness must have discouraged acts of vandalism or use as a hang out for youths imbibing alcohol. The pyramid shaped structure made of natural stone looked like it belonged here. There were no grandiose sculptures. The lone photo of Samsonov at the location came courtesy of a signboard. I found it disconcerting just how normal everything seemed. The monument would not have been out of place in a forest reserve, perhaps marking an important event such as a boundary survey.

To think that a monument marking the most memorable event of what some scholars consider the only truly decisive battle of World War I has few visitors and very little controversy is surprising. The monument was not known as a place for pilgrimages. After a few minutes studying the monument, me and my travel companion began to look in the area around it. We noticed three large depressions where the earth had been excavated long ago. One of the depressions had a tree growing out of it. The last time earth had been excavated from it was a long time ago. We surmised that it might have been a place of burial. Oddly, each of the three depressions was widely separated from another. The lack of a rational configuration was perplexing.

Digging down – One of the depressions close to the Samsonov Monument

Deep Rooted – A Monumental Insecurity
The question that will always be in my mind, is one that will never be completely resolved. Specifically, whether the monument stood in the same place where Samsonov shot himself. There are good arguments both for and against the location. An argument can be made that any location this remote had to be near the actual suicide spot. If the Germans wanted more people to visit the monument, they would have moved it closer to the highway between Wielbark (Willenburg) and Nidzica (Neidenberg) which is not very far from the monument.

On the other hand, the monument was never going to be a place where anything other than German nationalist zealots, battlefield buffs and locals would visit. Going to see the spot where a rival general shot himself is not exactly grounds for a picnic. How the Germans arrived at the exact place Samsonov shot himself is open to question. They may have marked the location of where Samsonov’s body was found in 1915. When exhumed from the sandy soil, he was still wearing a greatcoat. It is likely that the monument was placed near this burial spot. Hence the three nearby depressions. They were ground truth of burials in the immediate area.

The monument existed during the interwar period mainly to make the Germans feel better about being on the losing end of World War I. Tannenberg may have been a smashing victory, but it did not help Germany win the war. As for Samsonov’s suicide, it was spectacular and surprising. A symbol of the devastating loss the Russians had suffered. Nevertheless, a single general’s suicide had zero strategic or tactical value. The battle was all but over by the time Samsonov took his own life. His fate was useful for symbolic purposes and nothing more than that. I doubt anyone during the interwar period was interested in how Samsonov’s suicide or the outcome of Tannenberg affected the war’s eventual outcome. What mattered was emphasizing Teutonic might as a cover for deep rooted German insecurities. Samsonov’s defeat represented German superiority over the Russians.

Shadows & silence – One last look

Staying Alive – The Career Move
Visiting the monument did cause me to think deeper about its meaning, both past and present. How odd that the Germans won the battle and lost the war. As for the Russians, they lost the battle, the war, and everything else. Samsonov is a symbol of their defeat. In a dark irony, no one won, and everyone eventually lost. This begs the question, “what was the point?” Nothing quite symbolizes the futility of World War I quite like Tannenberg. While the battle is unique because of the German Army’s decisive victory unlike almost every other battle and campaign during the war, the victors were unable to benefit much. The losers continued to fight. If this sounds like the essence of those inconclusive months-long battles on the western front, that is because the result of Tannenberg was the same. The battle was an exercise in violent futility. A decisive outcome for the victor did not lead to destruction for the loser.  

I find it odd that Samsonov would have been forgotten except for the fact that his opponents resurrected him. The only reason I remember him or seek out the monument is because of his role in the battle and resulting suicide. Paradoxically, the monument has kept the memory of Samsonov and his fate alive. There have been countless poor military leaders in history, but very few get monumentalized for taking a bullet by their own hand. It may have been unintended, but Samsonov’s death was quite a career move.

One that ensured he would be remembered. I am sure Samsonov would have preferred otherwise. The moment he shot himself in the early morning darkness on August 30, 1914, his life and death were on a new trajectory. Samsonov may have died physically, but he became more alive in death than he could have ever imagined. His spirit pervaded the monument and surrounding area. In the shadows and silence Samsonov still resided. The only thing missing was the sound of a single pistol shot.

A Candle Burning At Both Ends – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Nine)

“There it is!”
“We just passed it”.
The phrase, “blink and you’ll miss it” comes to mind concerning the moment we finally found the Samsonov Monument. My travel companion first noticed the monument when I had already driven past it. Even though I was only driving 50 kph down the dirt road, the monument was not easy to see. Fortunately, my friend happened to glance out of the corner of his eye and catch a glimpse of the monument. I never saw it until he said something. Quickly glancing back over my shoulder, I saw the monument just off the road tucked into the surrounding forest. I quickly put the car in reverse. After 50 meters we were right in front of the long -awaited goal. This was the point when a decade and a half journey successfully concluded at the long-awaited destination.

Up close & personal – My friend & the Samsonov Monument

Flaming Out – A Change In Fortunes
The Samsonov Monument stood alone in a small clearing by the roadside. The monument was a pyramid shaped stone structure with an embossed plaque on the front with Samsonov’s name and date of death. The plaque was shiny, looked relatively new, and clearly legible. In front of the monument was a single glass cemetery candle. Around the back were several more. Commemoration still occurred at the monument, but I wondered by whom. Wicks on the glass candles had burnt out long ago. The containers holding them did not look very old. Anonymous individuals were keeping the flame of Samsonov’s fatal moment alive. The history here simmered in obscurity

The Russian Empire disintegrated in 1917. The German Empire a year later. This ground had been part of Poland since then, except for the Nazi occupation during World War II. Of course, Russian nationalism had been back on the march in Eastern Europe since Vladimir Putin came to power at the start of the 21st century. That was until Ukraine stopped Russian revanchism. Ironically, Samsonov was born in Kherson, a city that has been in the crosshairs of the fighting since Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine started. Now Russian nationalism is in retreat, just as it was after Samsonov’s suicide, and the Tsarist Army’s devastating defeat at Tannenberg. History does not repeat, it rhymes.

The Samsonov Monument was erected by the Germans after the war. They were looking for sites to glorify from their crushing victory over Russian forces at the Battle of Tannenberg. This would provide some solace for the grievous wound to their pride from losing the war. The Germans were able to identify where Samsonov shot himself by its proximity to where his body was discovered and exhumed. His remains were transported by railway to neutral Denmark and then shipped back to Russia. Samsonov ended up buried in the family plot back home. This was a long way from the final tragic act of his life. The monument was the only thing left about Samsonov still located on the field of battle. Proof that even the most important actors in military history often end up vanishing from the field of battle.

Burning the candle at both ends – The Samsonov Monument

Complex Natures – Matters of Interpretation
Despite its obscurity, the Samsonov Monument still had good information for visitors with two signboards explaining why the “Samsonov Memorial Stone” stood in this location. Calling the monument, a stone downplayed its size and importance. I prefer to call the Samsonov Memorial Stone, the Samsonov Monument because of its substantial size. The monument rises to eight feet in height. Its staying power is a direct result of the construction materials. Moving it would have been costly and labor intensive. Thus, it was never worth the bother.

Because of its remote location, the monument has escaped attention and destruction. Many German memorials in East Prussia were destroyed during the the Red Army’s campaign through the area near the end of World War II. The Samsonov Monument was unique because though it was originally installed by the Germans, it memorialized by a Russian general. This may have helped it avoid wartime destruction. The general’s ethnicity did play a part in its refurbishment. The current information plaque attached to the front was installed in the 1990’s as a replacement for the original. The Russian Federation paid to have it replaced.

In the wake of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, it will be interesting to see whether anything happens to the monument. History in Eastern Europe is often contradictory and extremely complex. The Samsonov Monument reflects that complexity. Because of the monument’s relatively remote location it is likely to remain. For those Poles who are aware of the monument’s existence, I doubt that there are many living in the former lands of East Prussia who give much thought to it. Those who do may see it as more of a curiosity, an artifact from a bygone battle in an age that seems well out of reach.

Matters of Interpretation – One of the signboards at the Samsonov Monument

Space & Time – The Path Back
For me, the most fascinating aspect of the Samsonov Monument is where it stands in space and time. The monument acts as a sort of crypto-historical GPS system leading back to the final days of August 1914. The forests around the monument have hardly changed since the war. The area was never heavily populated and remains that way today. It is not hard to imagine Samsonov stumbling through the woods in the darkness of night, unable to extricate himself or the army he commanded from a disaster that unfolded in a matter of days. His turn in fortunes was so rapid that it is still startling. Samsonov first set foot in East Prussia on August 21st, nine days later he was dead by his own hand.

Russian forces from the 2nd Army had taken Wielbark (Willenburg) just a week before their commander put a gun to his head in the woods west of town. Samsonov was filled with shame over what had occurred and his role in it. Nothing in Samsonov’s experience prepared him for the battle or its result. He had never commanded anything larger than a calvary division. Major-General Alfred Knox, the British military attache to Tsarist Russia, had met Samsonov before the war. He described him as, “simple and kindly.” These were admirable qualities, but not very useful when leading an army against a well-organized and technologically proficient enemy. At Tannenberg, Samsonov lost everything, including his life. Standing before the monument it was hard to believe that anyone would have wanted to memorialize his death.

Coming soon: Silence, Shadows & A Single Shot (Searching For The Suicide Of Alexander Samsonov Part 10)