Tuesday 31/5


Surprisingly free of a hangover, which is a blessing, and after a good, solid night's sleep, its off to breakfast.

During this excellent meal Ralf, our host, talks to us about this and that. It seems the village gets a lot of tourists (three or four coaches a week!) in summer. They're mostly English or American and the purpose of the visit is fairly obvious. He thinks and then confirms that Coburg was within East Germany, settling a discussion from several days before. Whilst explaining that the knocking thing we'd noticed the day before is a local custom, he also tells us about an ex-Stazi in the village who used to follow people around quite obviously for many years after he no longer had any masters to report to. Old habits, again... Our host felt that this chap had watching and snooping so ingrained into his psyche that he simply couldn't stop doing it. Sad and a bit sick too.

We clear our rooms and load the bikes. The hotelier kindly let us leave them in his garage until we are ready to leave this coming afternoon.

We walk up to the castle to take the official tour. We walk through those famous gates, pay our 16 and join the group of about 6-8 others for the English speaking tour. This tour is conducted by a pleasant looking woman who either spent the night before doing some hard weeping or was recovering from a nasty bout of conjunctivitis, judging from her red, sore looking eyes. Her manner suggested the latter as she was both professional and pleasant.

The tour was illuminating and interesting, but a bit odd. The guide began by taking us into the outer courtyard, the old German quarters. Now there's the thing. Despite hundreds of years of history, Colditz castle is now always defined by what happened there between 1939 and 1945 - a definition not just for the English like us but it seems also for the Germans now. This is something that crops up again and again on the tour.

Anyhow, there we are in the courtyard and its a riot of noise and scaffolding. Smack in the middle of the yard is a 1960s brick built single storey block and round it are piles of building materials. The old Officer's quarters are being turned into flats. It seems that the castle has been taken over by the regional cultural commission type thing. That's fine and dandy except that this organisation has no money to look after the place and so these flats are being created and sold (or rented out) to cover the costs of maintaining the rest. There's quite an active local preservation society, of which our guide is effectively a representative, and I couldn't quite gauge her feelings on the matter. Resigned pragmatism was my impression but that might be just the German way. I'm not sure.

Given that local Government is undoubtedly strapped for cash, I think its an inventive way to raise the cash to preserve the rest of the place. A bit too intrusive on the building, but a lot better than letting it moulder. The only concern I have is that the rewards of this might go to the general coffers and not end up being spent on preserving the rest of the building. Anyhow, regardless of that, looking only at the desirability of the flats, I'd have one. Great area to live and not too hard to get to for weekends and so on. If only I could afford to retire...!

And so we walk into the second part of the castle, going towards the area where the prisoners used to be, up the walled road that is so familiar from 1970s TV to the entrance to the main castle. This is where the tour takes its turn toward the 1940s. The guide says something like "this castle was built in 1543 and that window was where Pat Reid..."

Its very interesting stuff and, of course, a major reason for coming here but in this case I'd rather like to know about the period between the castle being built and Douglas Bader dropping in, Did you know this place was the centre of regional government when a Bavarian prince lived here? Did you know it was a psychiatric hospital from around the end of the 19th Century until it became a prison camp? But we didn't get much more about that history. Mind you, the WWII stuff is fascinating in its own right.

The guide chatted us through things like the whispering gate (its fluted and if you put your ear to one channel you can perfectly hear Jerry whispering 'bog off' on the other side) and talked briefly about the old Prisoner's entrance - which is to the left and the original way in for, obviously, the prisoners.

We then entered the courtyard, the exercise yard as it was then. There were 400 prisoners here, most of whom were neither English nor American but were instead Polish and French. It a small space for 400 people, very small.

We go down into the cellars to look at part of a tunnel made by French prisoners that the Germans found just before it was finished. The tunnel was mainly dug through solid rock, amazing enough in itself, but there are diagrams showing the route it took and it winds all over the place!

For me the part of the tour that affected me most was the tiny chapel. Despite the grand entrance, this is a curiously claustrophobic place with a now semi-derelict 3 storey gallery running round three walls and a very obvious pulpit. All along the back wall the wooden floor has been taken up showing where the well lit French tunnel entered the underfloor space in one corner, the crawlway cut through the joists across to the far corner where the tunnel began again. This was how their tunnel was discovered, as they cut too much away from the joists and the chapel floor collapsed.

There are other interesting, and moving, things in the chapel. On the galley to the rear of the room is a painted panel. This is the war memorial painted in 1919 by the patients here, in memory of the staff that had fallen in the Great War. I found that very moving and the guide explained that it was one of the reasons the restoration of the very unusual but very damaged gallery system is still being considered. On the other side of the room is a little roped off area containing a can and two searchlights. One is a real searchlight used at Colditz during the war; the other is a nearly but not quite identical fake left here by a British TV company, presumably the BBC, after filming took place here in the early 60s. The can contains 60 year old marmite. I idly wonder if the taste has changed over the years. The can's open, I could just take a quick dab and see... but no, not even I am that crass. Its a historical wossname after all.

We take a walk through other parts of the ground floor of the main castle and some outside balconies. One terrace allowed us to see where the famous glider would have flown from and landed (if they were damn lucky). Another area, ground floor prisoner accommodation, has been converted into a display area talking about the history of the Polish in particular that were imprisoned there. It didn't make easy reading in places. More accommodation had been set up with original (or copies of original) furniture to show the Special Prisoners conditions. These were people like Churchill's nephew, who was here for some years. Their quarters were spartan to say the least. For ordinary prisoners things must have been very cramped. I can't be sure because the tour didn't include any general prisoner accommodation, or indeed any other floors. Perhaps those floors aren't safe - or are in other use?

As we walked round, Jerry remembers having had a Colditz board game when he was a lad. The last stop on the tour is a museum and there on display is a copy of the very game!

The museum isn't large but it is most interesting, including a scale model of the famous glider (the original having been dismantled by the prisoners when they decided not to use it) and a section of the roof of all things. In 1993, part of the roof had needed repairs and when the workmen removed some tiles they found a secret radio installation, complete with light, chair and desk, although the radio set itself was missing. It is believed that one of the prisoners was allowed to return to visit after the war (as some were) and they retrieved the radio set then - no doubt as a souvenir.The fact that this hiding place was really quite sophisticated and that it remained hidden for so very long is a testament to the ingenuity of the captives.

And so we leave the castle, take some last pictures and go back into the village for lunch. Obviously we go back to the place where we had our evening meal the night before - its the only joint in town. No beer this time, and we're not the only tourists this time as a number of elderly couples also come in for lunch.

We head back to the hotel, change into our riding gear in the hotel garage, bid our farewells to the owner and head off to find the local library. We're not looking to borrow any books, you understand. Our host has advised that this is the only place in town with internet access. We're not entirely clear where it is and frantic mimes & hoping someone will recognise the work 'library' simply isn't working and then I recall "bibleotek!" This gets an immediate answer and it turns out we are about 100 yards away. In I pop and for 1 I do some internet banking in a room full of teenagers, all no doubt sharing the one 55.6k connection to look out at the big wild Western world.

Soon we're on the motorway towards the border. Its surprisingly busy - about as busy as the M4 in the late morning. Nevertheless we make good time to the border, stopping only for petrol. At the border Jerry sails through but the very young looking border guard isn't at all sure about my passport and sends me to a parking area under the canopy of the border point. I'm more than a little worried by this - there's nothing wrong with my passport and I don't want to face the no doubt labyrinthine post-Communist Polish bureaucracy. He queries something in my passport with a colleague and is immediately on his way over to me, all smiles and holding out my passport. I'm sent straight off on my way. Later I decide that he was concerned by my next-of-kin data. It has changed since my passport was printed and I've glued a piece of paper over the old details to write in the new. I bet he's not seen that before.

Anyhow, we're off into Poland. Before leaving we'd been warned about Polish drivers and the condition of their roads (both reputed to be the worst in Europe). At first there's no evidence of either complaint as we roll into Poland on a freshly resurfaced dual carriageway. When we turn off this main route and onto A-road equivalents the condition doesn't deteriorate that much. What does make a huge difference is the GPS. Up till now, we're had the comforting sight of a detailed map of everywhere we've been or could go. Made a mistake? No problem, use the friendly GPS to work out a way back on track. Need a hotel? Press 'Find' - no bother! Not now. Now we are on World Map: Garmin's equivalent of a rough sketch and no more accurate. It makes me feel like we've moved out of EU civilisation and into East European adventure. Bollocks, of course - Poland's in the EU. In fact we won't leave the EU during our whole trip.

Anyhow, back to the journey. Jerry leads us along well signposted roads through neat little villages. The houses all seem to have very well looked after gardens, although a good proportion of the houses look like they might be falling over fairly soon. Not too long after we have turned South-East, we see something I'd been told to look out for: a wooden Police car and officer brightly painted and propped on the side of the road. The idea is that speeding drivers will catch a glimpse of this as the belt along and slow down. I've been told there are loads of these dotted around Poland by a Polish colleague so I don't stop to take a photograph. I do not see a single other one during the remainder of the trip. Blast it!

One of the biggest problems with Polish roads is the number of heavy goods vehicles on them. They form into what are effectively convoys, moving at reasonably low speeds. Polish villages all have a speed limit of around 70 kph and the limits stretch out for some distance on either side of the villages themselves. This means that a lot of the time these limits almost meet each other. The limit for village A can end 50m from the start of the limit for village B. Whilst the nominal speed limit for the main road we're on is quite reasonable at around 110 kph, the in-village limits dominate the journey. Once you get behind 5 lorries in a row you have a serious problem because they don't bother to accelerate between villages - why should they? It does lead to some frustration, however, especially as the roads are often too windy for a high-speed blast past all the HGVs - and they do like to drive 1m from the one in front.

It doesn't take too much longer before we encounter your genuine Polish nutter driver. We're in a queue behind some lorries, thinking about overtaking (at least I was) as there's only three of them. As we approach a left hand bend that's pretty blind because of the wood on the left hand side of the road, a large Mercedes comes from somewhere behind us. It roars past, fully on the other side of the road and going at a right old pace. In order to overtake the front HVG, the driver takes this blind left-hander still on the other side of the road. If there had been anything in the bend (s)he couldn't possibly have seen it until it was too late and couldn't have got back into this side because the HGVs are so close together! It was very scary to watch and I'm damn glad I wasn't a passenger in that car.

This is the first example of this driving we see but certainly not the last. In fact there's so much of it that it substantially increases our wariness of overtaking, because you never know what'll come from where.

The Polish countryside is rather attractive, with open, rolling plains and less trees than you might expect coming from leafy England. Ideal tank country, I believe...

Jerry saw some snow on some of the larger and more distant hills but I missed that.

Our destination for the day is called Jelenia Gora. Its a bit, er, rough. We ride round the town centre looking for some parking but see nothing for some time. There are a few places where an old man sat in or by a decrepit caravan is clearly running a parking area but we don't feel like trying to debate prices, opening times, security and all that sort of thing - particularly as we don't want to be parking for long, just enough time to find a hotel, we don't speak a word of Polish and there's little chance they'll speak English.

So we ride round the town centre, one road of which seems to be the financial area as there are more banks and cashpoint machines in that street than seems entirely reasonable. The town centre's mainly pedestrianised as we discover when I take the lead for a little while and taking a wrong turn lead us right across the middle of that bit. Its really, really busy. The pedestrianised streets are absolutely thronged with people. We don't see a thing that looks even vaguely like it is a hotel that has parking. One or two places that are marked as hotels but are terraced and have no obvious parking, but nothing where we can feel relaxed about finding our bikes there in the morning.

This tension is absolutely all ours, by the way. It is, I think, our reaction to being in a place we really have to regard as Proper Foreign. Its possible that someone who knows the area could tell us that its actually lovely & calm - or that its a crime-ridden, hell-hole, who knows. We assume the worst, I think, as part of the adjustment process. For my part this is the only place on the whole journey where I felt a bit threatened. I'm not really sure where it came from, which is why this explanation is so cack-handed, but I know the feeling was there & we both felt it.

We go out of the town centre a little and find a modern looking hotel complete with garages. We book a twin room with some sort of a view even though its slightly expensive, park our bikes in the garage with the remote controlled doors and retreat to our room. After a good shower and so on, I'm ready to potter into town for food. We talk about eating in the hotel to save energy but they only have bar food and it might be a bit bland if the rest of the hotel is anything to go by.

We walk into town, which is now deserted. Where there were throngs of people at 7 pm there are now one or two hanging around. Its a totally different place. Some of the architecture is amazing and some awful. There's a handsome old place on one side of a junction, with a truly grim block directly facing it. Reminds me vaguely of certain parts of Reading...

We walk past the massive church, a place for the local Goths, and start going round and round looking to find somewhere to eat. Surprisingly, we can't see anything. We're almost at the point of giving in and going back to the hotel when we see an attractive square with a splendid arched walkway along one side. We see a restaurant and take seats outside. The wait to be served is much longer than we expect, as is the wait for the decidely average food. By the time we've finished, around 9:45, the place is shut, lights off, all furniture except ours stacked and only one person lurking and hoping we'll go away. Fan-bloody-tastic :(

Image of route

Mapsource .gdb file of track

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