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A cycling trail through Poland and Germany — and Soviet-era history

The author bikes along the 190-mile Szczecin Lagoon Cycling Path in Nowe Warpno, Poland. The path circles a lagoon between northeast Germany and northwest Poland. (Selina Kok)
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After two years of relative sameness, my wife and I craved something active, new and different, but not too far from our home in the Netherlands. That’s how we came to choose a bike ride following the 190-mile Szczecin Lagoon Cycling Path, which straddles northeast Germany and northwest Poland.

My first questions: What exactly is a lagoon, and how the heck do you pronounce “Szczecin”?

A lagoon, I learned, is a typically shallow body of water separated from a larger body of water by a natural barrier. In this case, the Baltic Sea is the larger body of water, and the lagoon is separated from it by the islands of Wolin and Usedom.

As for saying “Szczecin,” my mouth refuses to form the correct Slavic sounds, but it goes something like this: SHTEH-cheen.

Our route, which started in Germany and roughly circled the lagoon clockwise, had been part of the Eastern Bloc a little more than 30 years ago, so we weren’t expecting architectural or urban wonders. We found a mix of new and old, colorful and bland.

We drove north in late August, bikes in the car and armed with proof of vaccinations and a supply of face masks, both N95 and cotton. Both countries had mask rules, which, at least where we traveled, the Germans strictly followed and the Poles mostly ignored.

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Because we are regular cyclists, taking nearly a week to ride what turned out to be 215 relatively flat miles was no problem. But the region, less than three hours north of Berlin, can also be easily visited by car.

We started in Anklam, a small German city whose claim to fame is native son Otto Lilienthal. His late-1800s human-powered flight machines greatly informed and inspired the Wright brothers. At the Otto Lilienthal Museum, we saw fascinating and, at times, fanciful replicas and models of the gliders and aircraft designs he made. (One of Lilienthal’s few remaining original flying machines is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.)

From Anklam, we headed to the island of Usedom, shared by Germany and Poland. We first crossed a lovely nature area of wetlands teeming with birds, only to learn that it was a mitigation project to compensate for Nord Stream, a pipeline project delivering natural gas from Russia to Germany through a 760-mile line on the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

Following a marked cycle route on narrow country roads, we came upon a Trabant roadster at the end of a long dirt road with a sign advertising the DDR-Museum Dargen/Usedom. (DDR stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or East Germany). My wife loves those cute little Trabants, produced in East Germany from 1957 to 1991. For Selina, having grown up in the Netherlands, they’re nostalgic.

The museum buildings, looking as if they’d been added on as the collection grew, were crammed with all sorts of objects, including old electronics, gadgets, daily-life memorabilia and, yes, dozens of cars and trucks. Nothing was in English, but it was fun to see sights such as a teeny car with a tent on top, miniature campers and retro everyday objects. I was drawn to ephemera from the Young Pioneers, which I later learned was a Scout-like movement run through schools to instill communist thought.

Later in the afternoon, we heard the Baltic Sea before we saw it, its waves crashing on the sandy shore. We followed a crowded promenade, gaping at the stunning historic villas lining the street. The seaside, popular with Berliners, was filled with sunbathers camped out in wicker “strandkorbs,” iconic hooded German beach chairs that double as cabanas. In the resort village of Heringsdorf, we were amazed to see a film screen set over the water, with viewers using headphones to watch “Frozen” from the beach. As we cycled back east toward the Polish border, we passed signs to the FKK beach, meaning Freikörperkultur (“free body culture”), a.k.a. the nude beach. At the marked border crossing to Poland, we joined clusters of Poles and Germans gathered at the official signs to take photos.

We stayed just over the border in Swinoujscie (shvee-now-OO-eesh-chuh), even harder to say than “Szczecin.” I’m always delighted by commonplace discoveries in new countries. In Poland, it was the bathroom doors, with round holes at the bottom for ventilation. And I laughed when I turned on the TV at our hotel and heard an exchange on “CSI: NY” between characters Mac and Stella. Both were narrated by a man in a monotone, with the actors barely audible in the background. So goes the Polish version of dubbing.

At breakfast, we gestured and Google Translated our way through a coffee and eggs order. The buffet table included pickled salads, pâté, cold fish wraps and twarog — something like a white farmer cheese — most of which we also piled on our plates.

Leaving, we did our best to say an enthusiastic thank you (dziekuje ci) and goodbye (do widzenia) in Polish, which we repeated many times for the next few days. I’m pretty sure we never got it right, but doing so evoked smiles.

From Swinoujscie’s working port, we had to take a short ferry ride across a channel to reach the Polish island of Wolin. The cycle path led us through a forest, where we happened upon the Underground City, a former secret military facility for the Polish People’s Republic. The network of underground corridors, rooms and bunkers has been open to the public since 2014. We didn’t have time to stop, but it was one of the trip’s frequent reminders of the past.

Selina read that the Polish side of our bike route was poorly marked, but it turned out not to be marked at all. Wisely, she had come prepared. Thanks to Komoot, her favorite route planner, she found a beautiful path hugging the lagoon. This turned out to be the only day we cycled along the shoreline for any length of time. A strong wind created whitecaps, while waves breaking against rocks occasionally sprayed us. It felt wild and wonderful, and we gave thanks for our tail wind.

The path led us to the tiny village of Stepnica. Although most of it seemed frozen in pre-perestroika times, some serious money had been poured into updating the compact waterside area. Everywhere we went in Poland, we saw signs for European Union-funded projects. We stayed at Tawerna Panorama, a former 19th-century tavern made of beautiful dark wood. From the many windows we could see the lagoon and Stepnica’s small marina. Nearby was a small beach and commercial fishing harbor. At the cafe, we ordered pirogi — Selina’s stuffed with fish, mine with sauerkraut.

So far, we’d encountered a lot of different surfaces, such as newly paved bike paths, dirt trails, and farm “roads” built with slabs of concrete joined by uneven seams that caused brutal tire thwumping. But our road into Szczecin was singularly awful, with nowhere safe to cycle. It made all the lagoon “cycling path” maps we’d seen — several enlarged on kiosk boards — seem like a cruel joke. Thanks to Selina’s improvising, as well as sometimes walking on the side of a busy road, which no cyclist ever wants to do, we made it to Szczecin.

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The port city sits along the Oder River, which feeds into the lagoon. With about 400,000 residents, it was the only big city we visited. Since its origins in the 8th century, its rule has changed hands many times. After World War II, borders were redrawn to return it to Poland from Germany. (Germans still call it Stettin.)

While some of the city suffered bombing, other parts remain quite grand, especially the waterfront Chrobry Embankment, a terrace overlooking the river. Szczecin’s geometric, all-white Mieczyslaw Karlowicz Philharmonic building, completed in 2014, stands out as a singular and stunning contemporary masterpiece.

We spent a layover day walking all over, admiring the architecture, parks, fountains and sculptures, as well as the rebuilt Ducal Castle, first established in the 14th century and restored to its 16th-century version. We also toured the fascinating Underground City Trails Museum, a vast network of concrete tunnels the Germans used during World War II as air raid shelters for up to 5,000 people. Aboveground, we loved spotting the iconic “Berliners,” restored brightly colored water pumps from the late 1800s.

Not surprisingly, restaurants here had more contemporary offerings, such as cauliflower steak and vegan options. But for a more traditional flavor, we headed to Bar Mleczny Turysta, one of the city’s oldest “milk bars,” a combo diner/cafeteria where comfort food is plentiful and cheap. The first milk bar was opened in Warsaw in 1896 by a Polish dairy farmer. During communism, when inexpensive food was sought after, they became popular, and they still exist in larger Polish cities.

At Turysta, bustling during the lunchtime rush, the menu was on a board with old-fashioned movable plastic letters while a gaggle of women cooked in plain sight. We could only point to what we wanted: beet salad and borscht. (They were so colorful!) We got one substantial portion of each for a total of about $2. The only modern items here were the coronavirus-era clear plastic dividers between the tiny stools at narrow counters.

The next day, we headed out of town on a much more pleasant route than we’d experienced on the way in. We stayed on dedicated bike trails for hours, first through a huge park, then along the roadway. We crossed the marked border back into Germany on a bike trail through a forest.

All day we were near the lagoon, but not close enough to see it until we reached Ueckermünde, a small port city. It had a little resort area on the lagoon, complete with the iconic wicker chairs and even its own nude beach. We stayed at a historic hotel on the tiny market square and enjoyed strolling along the cobblestone streets and by the sweet little town harbor.

On our final day, we had looked forward to again hugging the lagoon, but it was not to be. We located the well-marked shoreline cycle path, only to discover that it was closed, for no apparent reason. Detour signs sent us through miles of farmland and nondescript villages displaying vestiges of the former East Germany — large concrete block apartment buildings. Although this was not the picturesque parting we had in mind, it was yet another reminder of the region’s not-so-distant past.

Daniel is a writer based in the Netherlands and Florida. Her website is bydianedaniel.com.

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Where to stay

Savona Swinoujscie

Komandorska 1F, Swinoujscie, Poland

011-48-602-594-140

savona-swinoujscie.pl

A small contemporary hotel a 10-minute walk from the Baltic Sea and near shopping and restaurants. Standard double room about $101, including traditional Polish breakfast buffet.

Tawerna Panorama

Tadeusza Kosciuszki 23, Stepnica, Poland

011-48-660-448-809

Overlooking a bend of the Szczecin Lagoon, this historic tavern has an adjoining building with contemporary rooms. Stepnica’s small marina and beach are nearby. Casual, homemade meals are served here until 8 p.m. Standard double room about $70 at high season, including breakfast. Meal entrees about $7.

Focus Hotel Szczecin

Malopolska 23, Szczecin, Poland

011-48-44-333-33-33

focushotels.pl/en

Well-located contemporary hotel with restaurant and bar near Szczecin center overlooks the Oder River and is steps away from the popular waterfront Chrobry Embankment. Standard double room about $44 including breakfast.

Hotel Am Markt

Markt 3/4, Ueckermünde, Germany

011-49-39771-800

hotel-ueckermuende.de

Situated on the historic market square of Ueckermünde, this hotel, which also has a restaurant and brewery, is only steps from the city harbor and a 30-minute walk from the lagoon. Standard double room about $130 including breakfast.

Where to eat

Bar Mleczny Turysta

Edmunda Baluki 6A, Szczecin, Poland

011-48-91-434-22-01

turystaszczecin.pl

At this old-fashioned, bustling “milk bar,” Poland’s answer to a diner or cafeteria, you’ll find nothing in English (though translations are on its website), but it’s easy enough to point to what looks good. (Everything!) A meal for two will probably not top $7. Open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Items also available to go.

What to do

Otto Lilienthal Museum

Ellbogenstrasse 1, Anklam, Germany

011-49-3971-245500

lilienthal-museum.de

Museum contains information about Anklam’s native son Otto Lilienthal, whose late-1800s human-powered flight machines greatly informed the Wright brothers and features replicas and models of his gliders and aircraft designs. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June to September; Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. October and May; and Wednesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. November to April. Admission about $5.50 adults, $4 for children 6 to 18 and students of all ages; free ages 5 and under.

DDR-Museum Dargen/Usedom

Bahnhofstrasse 7, Dargen, Germany

011-49-38376-20290

museumdargen.de

Private museum features items, memorabilia and ephemera from the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or East Germany), including an impressive collection of cars, trucks and campers. Open Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. April to October, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. November to March. Admission about $9 adults, $6 children 6 to 17, free 5 and under.

Underground City Trails Museum

Krzysztofa Kolumba 2, Szczecin, Poland

011-48-605-433-433

schron.szczecin.pl

The museum’s exhibits are found throughout this sprawling network of concrete tunnels used as a bomb shelter in the 1940s and as a fallout shelter thereafter. Open daily noon to 4 p.m. Admission about $9 adults, $8 children up to 18 and students up to 26.

Information

poland.travel/en

germany.travel/en/home.html

— D.D.

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