As we sat on the ferry back from our December adventures in 2009, we jokingly said we’d go to Poland and explore the Soviet military bases there. Hit another country, new places, new people, new adventures right? I decided the best way to do this was to integrate it into our summer roadtrip, and lo and behold, after a week in Belgium and Germany, we found ourselves passing the Border into Poland, past the freshly rusting border crossing from the days before the EU.
Not much is available online about the bases we visited. We didn’t know what we’d find there, or if we’d even find anything given the age of the information we had. I thank my companions for their patience; my poorly printed aerial views which were allegedly military bases were all we had to go by, as well as several names we found hard to remember, let alone spell. I wrote a lot while we were on the road.
We’d just arrived into Poland, and I was writing this as Chris drives down the lumpy motorway. The East feels more remote than The West. The populace is fewer and the roads bumpier. As soon as we crossed the border from west to east, the motorways decreased in quality and the police increased in quantity – vultures sat on the hard shoulder waiting for an unwitting speeder or a suspicious face.
When we spoke of our expectations of Poland the words used were ‘grey’, ‘third world’ and ‘miserable’. The first thing we noticed was just how bumpy it was. We left the motorway, a cobbled slip road reminding us of the differences to home and where we are. The A-road seemed more stable than the motorway, and another 43km await us before we find out what’s at Szpratawa. The DDR was a similar area, remote and depopulated, and I guess I expect the same from Poland.
“Owned by municipalities Szpratowa, Entry ban”
Szpratowa consists of a concrete slab runway with several covered aircraft hangars running alongside and into the hillsides. EU money pumped into the country had been invested in the infrastructure but Poland remained an anomaly, more in common with the scenes witnessed in ‘Borat’ than with what you might experience on a weekender trip to another EU country. A cluster of the aircraft bunkers were arranged in a circle, within which many were converted to industrial space, a sign bearing the EU’s starry circle boasting of the origin of the funds. We were able to drive down a dirt track and straight onto the runways, while side roads led off to the hardened aircraft shelters.
Szpratowa didn’t thrill us, but we were all satisfied to have seen something. It proved to us that primitive research and hide and seek style urbex can still yield something. We weren’t expecting ‘epic’ sites, we were expecting ruins and something to remind us of the Soviets. I guess we found it.
Our sleeping arrangements last night were not planned well. A tyre mishap set us back half a day and when we left Sprotzawa, the sun was going down. We had a couple of hours drive to Sulecin and Keznya Lesna and chose to hit the road rather than sleeping in the concrete aircraft shelters that would have made a delicious location for a fire.
We arrived at Keszyca Lesna late in the evening, and as we drove past the former buildings of the Soviet base, the occupants of the semi-converted buildings eyeballed us. Given the apparent hostility (or curiosity?) of the locals, we decided not to sleep in the derelict buildings at the base. We felt uncomfortable, and drove a few miles into the forest to sleep in a more remote area. We built a fire from nearby deadwood and cooked bratwurst, peppers and mushrooms, which were eaten with a healthy slathering of mustard picked up somewhere in Germany.
‘Map of local bases‘
Kesyca Lesna itself was somewhat occupied, aside from a couple of barrack type buildings bereft of the usual Cyrillic relics we were used to encountering. A cinema building stood derelict, a sign in a foreign tongue suggested that we shouldn’t enter but we did. A memorial to the soldiers that served at the base employed a prime location just inside what is now a holiday village, a strange juxtaposition.
Some roads in Poland are better than others; the tarmac is sporadic and the odd Tesco supermarket stands at the side. A predominantly Roman Catholic country also sees a litany of small churches littering the edges of the main road too. Road markings are few and large buildings with smashed windows still appear to have activity inside. I learned basic German at school which has served us in certain instances earlier on the trip, but Polish is a language as alien as Latin or Pygmy to all four of us.
We’ve just left Klomino, after driving south from Borne Sulinowo. At Borne Sulinowo a gargantuan concrete tower block was stripped, and a middle aged woman beckoned us into her adjacent museum. This consisted of something of a treasure trove of items relating to the history of the base. German guns and shells dug from the earth, and greater preserved Soviet books, posters, badges and uniforms. Our host pointed out which items were ‘Deutsche’ and ‘Russiche’, which helped greatly in terms of identifying the origins and dates. Items of propaganda were assumedly claimed from the base when the Soviets departed; there wasn’t much they didn’t take. In the concrete shell of a building, nothing was left intact if it could be removed.
[Soviet soldiers were allegedly given permission to remove whatever items they wished when the bases were decommissioned, the officers assumedly feeling that the items would be better off in the homes of the soldiers than left to rot in a field in mid-west Poland.]
A cluster of buildings at Borne Sulinowo were stripped bare, the only elements remaining were the stairs and bricks used to board up gaps i n the concrete. Some points were missing, which allowed us to access.
Several Poles entered at the same point, although we chose not to interact out of uncharacteristic timidity only. On maybe the 4th building along, we climbed a fence and walked towards a more industrial building that looked interesting inside. A man in a black shirt appeared, his two alsations barking loudly. We scarpered.
At Klomino, we stumbled across a woman that named herself as Sandra. She kept dogs in front of one of the blocks, and our basic communications told us that she was Polish, the buildings were Russian and she slept inside them as well. She was happy for us to photograph the outsides, and when I tried to ask if we could enter she appeared agreeable. When I walked to the door she was hesitant and also refused us permission to take a photograph of her.
We moved to the other blocks. They were totally stripped, and all that was left was the concrete walls which indicated that the flats within were built with either one or two bedrooms. Some flats had a balcony but most didn’t. The blocks were probably built very quickly; such was the necessity of mobilising an army several hundred thousand strong into the zones the Soviet Union occupied.
A lot of the accommodation in use in Poland appears to be concrete blocks built in a similar style to those of Klomino. 4 stories tall and maybe 4 flats wide as well, these blocks would have been relatively cheap to erect. They almost look like stereotypical council flats; dreary and uninviting, but probably a comfortable enough home. Some blocks are painted with gaudy colours, many are whitewashed, but a lot are undecorated; bare concrete colouring them.
As we drive the three hours to Kluczewo, we’ve had an opportunity to discuss Poland, and we all feel that it’s as intimidating as we’d initially thought. The more alien something is at first, the longer it takes to get used to. Just one day has passed since we crossed the border and the initial apprehension has gone. We’ll be spending less than 48 hours in Poland but it’s been a memorable part of the trip. A fair number of those 36 hours will have been spent on the road.