Head east for a lake district with a difference

You might not think of Poland as a playground. But Francis Jezierski and his children took to the water to discover otherwise
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The Independent Travel

We had just finished lunch in the tranquil gardens of "Eva Braun's Mansion". A youngish woman in engagingly meagre faux-peasant attire came running after me from the hotel's reception area. "You wanted to know if Eva Braun really stayed here," she said. "In fact, an old man who stayed a few weeks ago told us, 'Yes, Eva Braun did come here occasionally'. He knew because he had been one of Hitler's personal telegraphists."

We had just finished lunch in the tranquil gardens of "Eva Braun's Mansion". A youngish woman in engagingly meagre faux-peasant attire came running after me from the hotel's reception area. "You wanted to know if Eva Braun really stayed here," she said. "In fact, an old man who stayed a few weeks ago told us, 'Yes, Eva Braun did come here occasionally'. He knew because he had been one of Hitler's personal telegraphists."

Like us, the old man had come this way to visit the nearby remains of the Wolf's Lair, extraordinary vastnesses of half-destroyed concrete which, unlike the sand-surrounded "colossal wreck" of Shelley's King of Kings, are set in fecund woodlands, in the Polish lake district. Or so this gentle, mysterious region is described, though of course when Hitler was here it was unquestionably Prussian.

Now - as a backdrop to a holiday of swimming in the tepid, clear waters, boating and more boating and eating in remarkably cheap restaurants - everywhere there are constant but neglected, unwanted reminders of a vanished people. These are the local Germans, who became victims of their own history and, as the Red Army advanced, began an exodus that continued into the Seventies.

We were staying in Mikolajki, a sailing resort which bursts into life as the chill of the northern European spring floats away in the breezes of early summer and, after a few short months of playing host to the young and affluent, returns to its slumber as the storks migrate south at the end of August. Along its shores and the pontoons of its marinas cluster pedalos, kayaks, motor boats, dinghies and yachts.

The names of the home ports emblazoned on the crafts' sterns proclaim that this inland resort is bound to the sea. When the landscape gods decreed that northern Europe should consist of a featureless plain stretching from the Pennines to the Urals, by way of mitigation they vouchsafed this heavily wooded region of lakes, carved out by retreating glaciers in the last Ice Age. Now, many of the lakes are linked by canals.

From a lake adjoining Lake Mikolajki, a canal leads to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Even St Petersburg is a (remote) possibility. To the west of Mikolajki lies northern Germany, via ancient Ostroda, where Napoleon had his headquarters for part of his Russian campaign. The town is linked to the Baltic by an extraordinary canal which turns into a railway, boats being hauled uphill on water-powered trolleys.

There is no need to stray too far from Mikolajki, however. It is dedicated to pleasure, with bars, restaurants and jewellers, specialising in amber, crammed round the quay. An open-air theatre offers performances during the season. At the end of the kilometre-long quayside, a beach borders one of the town's few examples of Communist architecture - a workers' holiday camp dating from the 1960s. It comprises apartments of glass and concrete, carefully landscaped. Now grass grows across the paths and the once portentous gates are disintegrating.

In Catholic Poland, you might think that a church would provide the town's focal point but what dominates the skyline of this resort - which could be compared to Cowes or Kendal - is a giant pylon thrusting aloft the logo of a petrol company. The tidal rush of capitalism is sweeping over the architecture too, extravagant villas being built along the water's edge while, further back, homes that clearly date from German times seem neglected. Our apartment in one of the new buildings was all space, minimalism and spectacle provided by the boats that sailed by our verandah and by the ever-changing light and sky.

Even in a breeze, the lake was calm. For finding out what was across the water, pottering along to the beach, slipping into town for an ice cream or for having plain old-fashioned fun, kayaks were almost ideal. The kayaks were also the best way to see the loveliest sight of our holiday - the river Krutynia. For hours we lazily drifted with the current, paddling only to steer ourselves clear of the occasional boulder or fallen tree on our route through perfect, silent woods. We contemplated the sky, the profuse fish in the translucent water and (in the case of my son Chris) how to cause mayhem by steering into the next obstacle. As an unreconstructed doting dad, I gave full rein - and full throttle - to his inclinations by later hiring a power boat for a day, and, with the owner's agreement, letting him and his older brother, Joseph, drive. We had decided that we'd like to see the 10-mile-wide Lake Sniardwy, which adjoins Lake Mikolajki, and off we charged.

A brief lecture about the rules of the road preceded our passage through the channel joining the two lakes, where enough craft were moving in all directions for the captain - me - to order a speed of only a few knots. After entering the lake, though, the boys did their James Bond worst with our flimsy craft. Round and round we went in crazy loops and figures of eight, bouncing over our own wake. The shore shrank to a distant grey-green. Splash. Laughter. What big waves.

Suddenly I realised that the game had an edge: the windscreen was getting drenched with each breaker. After ordering our crestfallen retreat, I later learnt that Sniardwy, principally because it is so shallow, is considered to have the characteristics of the sea, and is dangerous for unprepared small craft. We decided to stop for a swim and moored at a bar. Language problems meant I could not find out exactly why there was no beer.

The language was a difficulty too at Kadzidlowo wildlife park near the Krutynia. Here bison, storks and wolves were on show and, for reasons of safety, we had to tour with a guide. We stood - polite, silent and uncomprehending - as she gave short lectures to the party of Poles and Germans. Joseph tentatively took a young wolf into his arms, after receiving assurance from the woman's signs that there was no danger. The rest of the party watched, amused and expectant.

Most waiters spoke some English and those that did not grappled politely with my inchoate German. One waiter volunteered that, like most of his friends, he preferred not to speak German - alluding to an issue that is near the top of Poland's political agenda. Will property laws introduced with accession to the EU mean the return of departed German families?

Across the land here, there is new building, in the style that seems to stretch from Greece to the Baltic - breeze blocks, white rendering and satellite dish. But a day's cycling on sandy lakeside tracks showed everywhere traces of the depart ed Prussians - twisted timbered buildings, ornate brickwork, ancient farmyards.

On the way to see Hitler's headquarters, we stopped at Ketrzyn, and its rebuilt Gothic castle. The Wolfshanze is, of course, the biggest reminder of all of the Germans. This is the region's greatest tourist attraction - whichno doubt for most visitors has family meaning as well as a colder, more historical significance. My boys were fascinated by our tour. It took half a day and included the shattered conference room where the attempt was made to assassinate the Führer. Then there was the wildlife. In Hitler's day, apparently, all the frogs in the forest died when insecticide was applied to kill mosquitoes. Now they sprang away in front of us with every step we took.


How to get there

The author drove to Poland from the UK via Calais. A return crossing on Eurotunnel (0870 840 0046; www.eurotunnel.com) from Folkestone to Calais costs around £228 per car. Return flights from London Heathrow to Warsaw start from around £100 with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) or around £60 return with EasyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) from London Luton. From there it is around a five to six-hour drive to the Lake District. Seven days' car hire starts from £175 with Argus Car Rental (00 353 1 490 6173; www.arguscarhire.com)

Where to stay

Interhome (020-8891 1294; www.interhome.co.uk) offers the house where the author stayed (Ref; L1173/111a) from £366 for seven nights' rental.

Further information

Polish National Tourist Office (08700 675 012; www.visitpoland.org).