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Sunday, August 2, 2009, in Kołobrzeg, Poland

Hi all. We’re still in Poland, making our way westward along the Baltic coast. It’s still summer here for a few more weeks. Last week, we were still in Gdańsk.

We left in the morning for our next port, Władysławovo. I knew not to expect much of a metropolis there. Other boaters had told us that this town was no more than a beach resort. My guidebook mentioned the town only as a possible place to find a hotel near another, larger place.

The wind was in front of us, but light, and we sailed about three-quarters of the distance in a modest but pleasant upwind journey. The sandy beach stretched out along our port side, as we passed the often-teased peninsula that is the gate to Hel. Hel, Poland.

Soon we arrived at W��adys��awovo (which is a sobriety test of a word, isn’t it?) The large harbor was nearly filled with medium-sized fishing boats and very few pleasure craft. We tied up alongside a concrete quay and decided to take an afternoon walk to explore.

There was a lot of foot traffic by the boat, because this dock was between the town and a sandy beach on the Baltic. After we took a glimpse at the beach, which is a much longer look than we normally take, we decided to walk to the main part of town. It wasn’t apparent where that was, and we concluded that the smart thing to do was to walk towards a giant spire that was either part of a church or part of a main square. As it turned out, it was neither, although there was a map nearby, and Art discerned from that where we might find the central district.

There were a lot of people wandering around Władysławovo, and vendors were everywhere. But this town at the end of July must look very different from the way it looks in even November. Just about all the infrastructure in sight, notwithstanding the spire and the building attached to it, was either inflatable, covered with a canvas, or in a tent. This whole place undoubtedly sprang up in a matter of days this season, and would be dismantled as soon as the first leaf turned. There were grill restaurants and fruit stands, tattoo parlors and sunglasses kiosks, jewelry stands and shops selling summer clothes. There wasn’t an amber necklace in sight, though. This is a sign that it’s a resort for Poles and not cruise ship passengers.

We had a whole day in town, though. Somehow we whiled it away, walking on the shopping streets, picking up blueberries from one of the many fruit vendors, having a tart and coffee, ducking a little bit of rain. With so few actual buildings in sight, we weren’t sure where all these people were staying. Maybe there were some inflatable rooms around. The town was crowded with people who weren’t at the beach. A huge lot was home to an amusement park, complete with Ferris wheel and some ride that launched itself with the announcement ���Five, four, three, two, one” hundreds of times, and audible from anywhere in town, including our bed. For those who wanted amusement without the park, there were several gaming halls with billiards and dozens of air hockey tables.

We left early the next morning, expecting to motor about sixty miles. The wind was kind to us, and we sailed in just enough breeze, with just enough heel, for most of the trip. Our destination was another resort town, this one called Uśtka. Our trip took us by miles and miles of white beaches, many completely empty, with no buildings to be found nearby. Who would have guessed that we’d find a whole New Jersey of shoreline in northern Poland? With a blue, calm sea as a foreground, and forest behind the beach, it was almost a postcard. Well, maybe a painting.

The plan was to arrive in Uśtka and stay two more full days because of some nasty weather not far away in the Baltic. We knew that Uśtka was a resort, but quite a larger one than we’d just left and no doubt a more permanent one, perhaps with an actual building or two.

The skinny inlet of Uśtka has a marina on one side and the town dock on the other. We were enticed by the town dock. First, from the marina, we’d have to take the dinghy in every time we wanted to go to town. Second, the town’s web site had invited us to use the Wi-Fi that emanated from the lighthouse at the inlet. We found a spot on the town dock and got ourselves settled. Then we walked through town. This was a completely different type of place than Władysławovo, and not just because the buildings were permanent. It attracted a more upscale crowd. There were restaurants, some with tablecloths, and shops, and hotels with balconies. Like Władysławovo, every third doorway led to ice cream and waffles. Air hockey tables were on nearly every block. Was this the right place for a two-day stay?

The dock was safe, but there was no electric. We couldn’t see the wireless signal, even with our super-charged antenna that we got in a cereal box. So there wouldn’t be much Internet, only the limited residual value on our prepaid phone cards. That was okay in one way: if you have Internet all the time, you’d suck up all the electricity in the batteries. We’d need to be careful. But without Internet and electric, we’d better find a lot to do in the town.

We took another walk in the town in the evening. The promenade by the beach was mobbed with sunburned people. We’d already seen a guitar player performing on a small stage in front of where we were docked. There was a large stage on the promenade, and a duo was performing there and being warm and witty in Polish. One of the musicians was a guitarist, and the other played the accordion. They’d chat between songs. It was like listening to the Smothers Brothers, but played inside out so that you couldn’t understand any of the words. Indeed, there were street performers, vendors and games all over the promenade. The performers reminded me of Mallory Square in Key West at sunset. The vendors were reminiscent of the Atlantic City boardwalk (in the days of innocence before gambling.) And the air hockey games and pinball machines were like, well, Władysławovo.

So, we’d arrived in the town. We’d walked the town during the day. We’d walked the town and the promenade at night. We hadn’t even been there overnight and we’d already done everything that there was to do. Two more days. There was no dockside power and no Internet. Art checked the weather again. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. We really wanted to leave.

The weather would get stronger as the day wore on, so we left very early in the morning, for an arrival at mid-day. We were able to sail right away. Art had set up the boat anticipating an easy ride for the first part of the day, and then a turn upwind, with its attendant heeling over and other inconveniences, for the rest of the voyage. He’d already reefed the main (which means that he rolled it up a little to expose less sail area to the wind) and the jib. He’d set up the running backstays in case we decided to roll up the genoa (the big jib) and sail with the staysail (a smaller version.) When we finally turned upwind to our course, the weather was better than we’d expected. The wind was anywhere between about fifteen and twenty knots, and it was easy to stay on top of it by rolling out the jib or rolling it back up. Furthermore, the wind direction was from land, so the sea was flat, even in the spirited winds. By the time we were in the home stretch in late morning, we were roaring along like a freight train, averaging more than nine knots with a little help from a favorable current. If they were still allowed to advertise Marlboro cigarettes on television, this day’s sail would be the backdrop for the commercial.

We arrived in Kołobrzeg by lunchtime and motored into the harbor for visiting boats. Art suggested that I put out the lines and fenders on the starboard side. In the middle of that, I wondered aloud if we wouldn’t prefer pointing out of the harbor instead of into it, and Art agreed. I moved the three fenders to the port side.

Alas, all of the empty space was earmarked for tour boats that were out for the day, so the harbormaster redirected us, after a few false starts, to raft to a power boat at the head of the harbor. Back went the fenders, untied and retied, one at a time, around the boat, to the starboard side.

We weren’t completely thrilled with the idea of rafting to the power boat, which isn’t shaped like a sailboat and wouldn’t be that easy to step onto or off of. Just at that moment, a friendly couple from Germany, snug in a visitor’s space alongside the quay, invited us to raft to their sailboat, and we got settled in. Of course, the fenders went back to the port side of the boat, one by one. I wish they made a hydraulic version of that. How about a boat made entirely of fenders? Oh yes, that’s what our dinghy is. We also found electricity nearby, and Internet service. I liked the name of the place, Port Jachtowy. It probably just means “yacht harbor”, but to me it sounds like something out of F Troop.

What we’d learned is that this harbor has a total of one visitor spot, and the German boat was using it. I don’t know whether Kołobrzeg views its marina as an international destination for large yachts, but this was something like throwing a party and then putting out one folding chair for your guests to share.

There was an old fortification overlooking our spot in the harbor. Inside the open area were a few casual restaurants, one of which was operating a fish smoker, sending a smoldering gray cloud in our general direction. After days of this, we’d either find it redolent or repulsive, but we were willing to take the chance. In the end, we had great dockage, a good Internet signal, a larger town, and a fantastic sail. We were delighted that we’d made the decision to leave Uśtka when we did.

We spent much of the afternoon exploring the town, where summer was at its peak. Processions of young people were guided by umbrella-wielding leaders through the streets and squares and remnants of fortifications. The outdoor cafés were filled all day with young adults and families. Art noticed a drink he didn’t recognize on many of the tables. It was red in color, with foam on top, and everyone was drinking it with straws. We went to a café and asked about it.

“It’s beer, with fruit juice,” explained our waiter. So we ordered one, with two straws. Yes, you drink this red beer with a straw.

The concoction really did have the refreshing coolness of beer and the sweetness of fruit, and the bubbles just made it ever so much more effervescent. Art said, “Well, there’s cherry Coke; why can’t there be cherry beer?” I couldn’t help thinking about Sky Masterson explaining the allure of the mysterious ingredient Bacardi in the milk beverage imbibed by the chaste Miss Sarah Brown in the movie “Guys and Dolls.” She enjoys this exotic Bacardi additive so much that she exclaims, “You know, this would be a wonderful way to get children to drink milk!” So we recommend, if only for getting Vitamin C into everyone, that we all sit down and have a cherry beer.

Summertime in Kolobzreg is a season of festivals and events. We attended an evening concert of chamber music in the fourteenth-century cathedral (which is unsurprisingly named St. Mary’s.) It’s hard to pass up a concert in this most congenial of acoustical settings. The music resounded – or re-sounded – from the stone walls and the high vaulted ceiling. The small chamber orchestra was so much nearer to us than a symphony orchestra in a concert hall would be. I kept lapsing into a fantasy of being present at one of those intimate performances after dinner where Mozart would introduce some new concerto of his, to only a hundred close friends, in someone’s mansion in Vienna.

The cathedral, restored, of course, from 1945 damage, is styled in Gothic brick, including the tall columns that line the naves. One of the columns was left naked of brick, apparently to avoid hiding some residual frescoes on it. On the other side of the nave, the columns leaned ominously to the side. Large, brick, leaning columns. The guidebook’s advice: “No worries. They’ve been doing that for centuries.”

In front of the cathedral stands a modernistic sculpture erected in 2000 on the 1000th anniversary of Catholicism in Poland, as a tribute to Polish-German reconciliation. It commemorates the year 1000 meeting of King Boleslaw I of Poland and King Otto III of Germany. In this land of ubiquitous heads of cabbage, I’m delighted that you could put a head of state in a limerick with “coleslaw” (yeah, yeah, I know it’s isn’t pronounced like that.)

Kołobrzeg became a spa town more than a century ago, and many of the hotels offer packages that include their in-house facilities: massages, beauty treatments, and slathering of local mud. The city boasts of its micro-climate, as if it’s some sort of anomaly in the middle of the Baltic. I noticed a somewhat transparent effort to boast of the healing powers of bathing in ice-cold water. Don’t look at me. I don’t even swim in Florida.

We had a choice of events for our second night in town. At the Town Hall, an orchestra would perform. Art noticed that we could watch the show and eat pizza in the square at the same time. I’m always in favor of any meal that doesn’t involve my galley. Another choice was “Night of Jewish Songs.” That appealed to us, too, but there were two disadvantages to this one. First, no pizza. Second, the location, at a place called the “Shooting Gallery.” Hmmm, should we suspect a neo-Nazi ruse? (Too soon to kid about that? Need another fifty years?)

So we went to the plaza in front of Town Hall, where a brass band was just beginning to play. Not yet ready for another cherry beer, we ordered a more conventional light meal and listened to the concert. The band played some instrumental numbers, and some ballads accompanied by a male singer. They played some standards, like “Moonlight in Vermont”, and some songs with Polish lyrics. They finished with a rousing medley of polkas, including “Roll out the Barrel”. So instead of a “night of Jewish songs”, we had apparently attended a bar mitzvah. We finished our evening with a walk along the river that led to our harbor, where kayakers swooshed along in the dusk and weeping willows lined the banks.

On the next day, we decided to visit an unusual museum in town, the Polish Arms Museum. The indoor portion took a trip through time, depicting armor, spiky medieval implements, a tiny, two-millimeter pistol (for Barbie to fend off Ken, perhaps?), and several shelves of cannonballs. The cannonballs and many of the other armaments on display were courtesy of the many times that Kołobrzeg was attacked or destroyed. Eighty percent of the city was devastated in 1945 in fighting between the Russian and German armies. Seeing all the cannonballs on the shelf, many with holes in the sides, I thought it looked more like a bowling alley than an armory.

There was also a well-populated exhibit of military uniforms, including several German examples from World War II. I couldn’t help but imagine the people inside them who were determined to eliminate people who were like me. There were uniforms from concentration camps, too. It was chilling. Lots of the locals in this town ended up in concentration camps, so my reaction probably wasn’t all that different from theirs. A man looking at the same exhibit with his two nephews grew up in Kołobrzeg. He indicated a spot on his own arm where his grandmother’s numbers are tattooed on hers.

One of the displays was an Enigma machine, the device used by the Germans to encrypt their wartime communications. This is historically significant, because it was actually Polish mathematicians who were able to crack the Enigma code as early as 1932. It wasn’t until 1939 that the Poles shared their decryption techniques with the French and the British, used with great success in later confrontations. Much as we like to think that the British cracked the Enigma, their main contribution was to speed up the decryption process by improving automated techniques that also originated with the unsung Poles.

Outdoors stood a rather large collection of tanks, planes, missiles, mortars, and other weapons that wouldn't fit all that well within an indoor glass case. There were MIG fighter jets, tanks with missiles on them, and lots of other fast and mean steel objects that delighted Art and the many other boys in the yard cooing over them.

We’ll stay here another few days and then begin our return to Sweden, following a schedule and a route that are determined largely by the weather.

Hope that you’re all doing well. Let us know what you’re up to.

Love, Karen (and Art)