TRAVEL FOR TWO: Darlowko, the gift that kept on taking

Richard Zubrinich's Travel Tales

Roger Zubrinich and Judy Peters like to travel. A lot. Prior to the pandemic, the couple would escape the Australian winter and head to Europe for the summer, traipsing through countries via a hire car.

With overseas travel now something of a dream, Roger has decided to revisit some of their destinations in writing.

Darlowko!

It’s a speck on a map next to the Baltic Sea midway or thereabouts between Berlin and Gdansk in the Pomerania region of Poland.

It was our destination, about four hours from our apartment in Berlin. Our initial intention was to drive directly to Gdansk about 550 kilometres distant but because we had no idea of the traffic conditions we thought it prudent to break the journey with a couple of nights in Darlowko. And why not? Darlowko was described in the tourist literature as a popular summer beach resort on the Baltic Sea and next to the Wieprza River, a short distance from the historic town of Darlowo.

Thus, on a day at the beginning of July not so many years ago, we drove from our rented apartment in the Berlin suburb of Wilmersdorf, through the guts of Berlin, past the post-war reconstructed and lively Potsdamer Platz that had been divided by the Berlin Wall, and past Alexander Platz that had been totally contained within East Berlin. It’s bookmarked by the 368-metre-tall Fernsehtum (also known as a television tower) and still displays the signature austere architecture of many of the eastern bloc countries prior to the fall of the Wall. Eventually, and with minimal fuss, we exited to the north of Berlin onto the E28 and settled in for the drive to Darlowko.

When we crossed the border into Poland a little before the town of Kolbaskowo, Judy reminded me of how worried she was about crossing the border into Poland during our first visit there many years before when we were driving to Krakow. She’d read on a travel site about car hijackers lurking next to roads looking for opportunities to purloin cars, leaving their shocked owners on the side of the road. She had floated the idea of putting a credit card in her sock so that in the highly likely event that our car was hijacked and our valuables taken we would be left with some means of existing. She did eventually accept that the likelihood of losing the credit card from her sock was much greater than being hijacked. Of course, we drove into Poland without issue, as we did this time.

Travel blogs – more often than not they are simply conduits for the unfounded paranoia of others.

Eventually we exited the E28, soon drove through Darlowo, then onto Jozefa Conrada, and before long, we were finding our way through throngs of largely Polish holidaymakers at play at fairground arcades and browsing holiday junk stalls next to the Darlowko hotel we’d booked. It proudly sported four stars on its exterior and was, for us, something of a gift. Multi-starred hotels were usually well beyond our budget. We were in good spirits, borderline ebullient even, because in addition we’d had an untroubled drive through and from Berlin. Ronda, our GPS, had been well-behaved, Judy’s map reading had been impeccable, and now we had the promise of four-star comfort.

The graceful exterior of the hotel offered reassurance. Impeccably painted in a light tone that emphasised the hotel logo sitting above the hotel name and the proud four stars, it had an elegant portico that opened into an equally elegant foyer.

Bent behind the reception counter a youngish woman possessed of a face totally devoid of expression, a perfectly symmetrical Frida moustache and ungainly glasses, conducted a phone conversation in a relentless monotone. When she finally deigned to acknowledge us, she confirmed she had the personal magnetism of a brick. And she spoke minimal English. The suggestion we had a reservation appeared to confuse her, which is fair enough – she had more English than we did Polish so we couldn’t be critical. After sighting our booking documents, she scrabbled through her computer and box of room keys.

A room with a sea view we said. Booked nine months earlier in October the previous year. Not possible she said. Tomorrow night only for sea view. Impasse. We wouldn’t retreat and she simply stared at us with blank obstinacy. Eventually, she made a phone call and promptly, as though poised for such an opportunity, a purposeful young woman appeared through a door to the right of the reception counter. Blonde, 19 or thereabouts we thought, encased in a maroon tube dress that she kept respectable by regularly giving it a surreptitious and practised tug. She addressed us confidently in impeccable English. The small white dog she had on a lead all the while yapped approvingly.

She affirmed with appropriate solemnity that indeed a room with a sea view was available only on the second night. However, that night we would have a lovely room with an unparalleled view of the park behind and to sweeten the deal she offered us a free dinner with wine. She assured us that a sea view room would be at our disposal at 11 am the next day.

Our lovely room with an exquisite view of holidaymakers at play in the park below was a bleak brown longitudinal box crammed into the end of the hotel so it was out of sight and mind. A room of last resort. Watching Polish holidaymakers, some fuelled with beer, cavorting at fast food stalls in a park is an overrated pastime.

And then there was the issue of money. We had none. Zlotys that is. Despite people surrounding us enjoying themselves I wasn’t. Context is everything and in this case a grim room, hunger and thirst dominated my outlook. It was early afternoon and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast in Berlin.

But I couldn’t be entirely immune to the high spirits of people around us, seemingly unperturbed by the grim sky and cool temperature.

The toddler screaming happily as her father lifted her to blow raspberries on her bare tummy. The mother doling out coins to excited children who couldn’t wait to test out the sideshows. The hustle and bustle of people heading to buy food or drinks and the canned music from sideshow alley. People sitting on park benches in animated conversation with friends.

I ploughed on feeling like the guilty curmudgeon I was until I located what was probably the only ATM in Darlowko. I knew that because I was at the end of a long queue. After what seemed an interminable wait I was confronted by the infernal machine. ATMs in Europe are generically described as cash machines and most often are referred to as Bancomats. They are configured in various ways but usually this is not an issue because most have a number of language options including, of course, English. The machine in front of me didn’t.

The Polish language has no resemblance to English that I’m aware of, so every instruction became a guessing game. Which button should I press? Will it refuse the transaction? Will it take me down a path I don’t want to follow? Worst of all, will it swallow my card if I choose the wrong option? I waited nervously every time the machine whirred and clunked and thunked from one gate to another. Eventually I got my money and my card. Excruciating relief was soon replaced by the embarrassing ignominy of being held hostage by a money machine. Perhaps a metaphor for the capitalist ethic.

We spent what was left of the miserable afternoon huddled on chairs in a slightly protected corner of the sand covered, not at all sunny outdoor deck that faced the sea at the rear of the hotel. A chill, barely subsonic wind whistling across the deck spiked our hair, thrust grit at our eyes and ballooned our pants.

Our hostess’s dog lead surely was multifunctional. Inside it restrained the dog, outside at the beach it tethered it to earth. The wind blasting off the Baltic Sea carried sand with such force and speed that it threatened to remove the epidermis of the skin and had the capacity to transport small un-anchored dogs into the stratosphere to the Dutch coast.

The hotel's 4-star restaurant inDarlowkoWe were resolute. I purchased snacks and beer from the novel two-storied circular construction at the edge of the deck that housed the restaurant and bar. As we sipped our drinks with protective hands shielding them from sand, we acknowledged that Darlowko holidaymakers had adapted to the idiosyncrasies of the weather. Sun bathers didn’t use beach umbrellas. Their signature luggage was transportable wind shields that they could lie behind in the optimistic hope that the sun would favour them with a few rays occasionally. We knew it because on the open beach to our right a few brave and hopeful holidaymakers were doing precisely that.

About 100 metres to our left and close to the foreshore was a large white temporary pavilion surrounded by well-anchored pink and blue banners and canopies that flapped in the wind. From the pavilion came the sound of a pure soprano voice and music ensemble in contrapuntal arrangement with the wind and snapping banners. The banners proclaimed that the concert was sponsored by Trójka Polskie Radio – the Polish public broadcaster.

The soprana pavillion, Darlowko

They prompted a memory of our initial visit, some years before, to Zamość, a Polish town near the border with the Ukraine. On our first evening there, sitting at a café table in soft evening warmth at dusk in the town square, we listened to a state sponsored outdoor concert of operatic arias followed by an evening of poetry readings the next day. Soothed by the memory and the music, I purchased more beers and we huddled in to enjoy the unlikely symphony of voice, musical instruments, snapping banners and whining wind.

Eventually, late in the afternoon, the musicians emerged from the pavilion and made their way in a scattered group to the deck and the bar. They sat near us, heavily coated against the wind, engaged in disparate conversations. The hubbub of unfamiliar Polish voices emphasised my sense of being in another place, in another land, and with it came yet again, the visceral excitement of the traveller, and the irresolvable tension of the outsider, engaged, observant but never able to belong.

A drink or two later, or perhaps it was three, it was time to change for our free dinner with wine. We changed during a perfunctory and reluctant visit to our bleak, brown, longitudinal box of a room, then it was off to the circular restaurant.

We were the sole occupants. A young man in standard waiting-staff dress – white shirt and black trousers ­– took us to a table by the window so we had a view of the heaving Baltic Sea. He was a little nervous, possibly because of the difficulty helping non-Polish speakers navigate the menu while he spoke no English. Or perhaps he’d been forewarned to expect us to be difficult.

He was courteous and efficient and with his assistance we managed to order a mixture of pierogi to share for entree and a serve of golbaki – otherwise known as cabbage rolls – and bigos – a delicious stew – to share for mains. The bottle of red wine he provided was perfectly drinkable. Then we retired to our brown longitudinal box to read and sleep and, inevitably, to engage reluctantly with the shouting and laughter of holidaymakers partying below our window late into the night.

And so to a new day. When we returned from a simple hotel breakfast, a receptionist in the hotel foyer eagerly informed us that our elusive sea-view room was available despite it being well before 11 am.

She took us to the room, flourished the key in front of us, and left us to wallow in the pleasure of a comfortable and genuinely well-appointed room that opened onto a wooden deck shared by other rooms on the same level. The sun was shining so I tugged open the sliding door to better experience its benefits. The enthusiastic wind almost plunged me back into the room, door curtains wrapped around my legs and sand swirled around the floor leaving a gritty deposit for us to walk on for the remaining time in the room.

Trawlers unloading in DarlowkoDarlowko is not simply a tourist dive. In conjunction with Darlowo about 2.5 kilometres upriver it is an operating seaport from which fishing trawlers venture into the Baltic Sea. A little back from two substantial breakwaters that extend into the sea from the mouth of the Wieprza River like enormous pincers is a pedestrian drawbridge that opens to allow vessels to move in and out of the river. Above it on the hotel side of the river, is a most odd-looking blue and white capsule, perhaps a control room, suspended above the river atop a pillar curved like a question mark. Directly next to it is a booth from which, following our departure from our sea view room, we purchased tickets to ride on the red and white water bus that ferried people upriver to Darlowo.

Water bus in Darlowko

How beautiful it was to sit in an almost empty boat, under a red canopy, and to burble serenely along a river free of crowds of boisterous holidaymakers.

Shark trawlerWe glided past fishing trawlers secured to the riverbank, some red and white, some blue and white, and some garishly decorated like one with the prow painted to resemble the open mouth of a shark. Men unloaded fish while eager and opportunistic gulls floated behind the vessels hoping to score a free feed. Colourful buildings and thick groves of trees overlooked the river. We disembarked at Darlowo at a quirky café that doubled as a conduit into the town.

The town of Darlowo is rather charming as we discovered during a relaxed meander along its streets. I continue to be surprised at the complex histories of many smallish towns in Europe, and Darlowo, with a population of about 14,500, is no exception. The antecedents of modern day Darlowo date back to the 1300s when it was rebuilt after being subjected to the wrecking ball by the imperious Bogislaw of Pomerania. Construction of the imposing castle of the Pomeranian dukes that boasts a 24-metre-high tower began in the 1350s and construction of the very fetching St Mary’s church that literally towers above the town hall in Market Square started in the 1320s, thereby pre-empting the castle by a few years. The existing layout of the town, including the market square over which now presides a baroque pastel-yellow town hall, dates back to that time.

Darlowko town hall

It is noteworthy that Darlowo was in fact Rugenwalde, a German town, until the Potsdam Conference in 1945 assigned it to Poland, hence its current name. What is surprising is that the town is still largely intact despite getting more attention than it sought during the Thirty Years War and being subject to the horror of the Second World War and the arrival of Soviet troops in March 1945.

Back at the hotel we had the inevitable late afternoon drink on the hotel deck. The sun was shining, the wind had abated to a stiff breeze, and the portable windshields on the beach had multiplied with many a scantily attired sun-seeker stretched out behind them. I wondered how many people actually swam in the Baltic. Certainly, none on that day. I’d never had a close encounter with the Baltic Sea but previously I had dipped my foot in the North Sea and lost all feeling in it. Extrapolating from that I thought swimming in the Baltic would risk being snap frozen but I accepted that people in that part of the world were more durable than me.

After dinner we whiled away the time with comfortable chatter on the deck outside of our no longer elusive sea-view room.

The next morning was departure time. The sun was shining yet again, and the wind had perversely abated to a mere whisper. When we checked out, the receptionist at the desk punched some numbers into her credit card machine, inspected my credit card suspiciously before inserting it, poked at a button or two, then waited. Nothing happened. She re-inserted the card and poked some more buttons. The machine remained stubbornly inactive. She coopted the help of another staff member and she too re-inserted the credit card and poked the machine. Success. Finally.

We took the printed receipt, gathered our luggage, exited from the rear of the hotel and headed for the potholed car park. Judy caught her foot on the remnants of a cement slab, did a truncated cartwheel and landed more or less face down. Shock! After she’d dusted herself down, checked her limbs and inspected the holes in the knees of her pants and the scrapes on her hands, we loaded the car, irritable, a bit discombobulated, and headed for Sopot, a beach town directly adjacent to Gdansk.

When we arrived six hours and 170 kilometers later – therein lies another story – I checked our credit card details via a diffident internet connection in the apartment we had rented. My suspicions were realized. We’d been charged for the Darlowko room three times. Overcharged by $680. We did eventually recover the money, but only after considerable heartburn and fiscal anxiety.

Ah, the Darlowko hotel. The gift that kept on taking.

Travel for Two is a guest series by Roger Zubrinich.
Keep an eye on the blog for future instalments.

 

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