Of course, we weren't planning to travel all the way to Poland just for some dumplings. No, no, that would be madness. Some of us were in search of Polish vodka as well! And we did have a plan to stop off somewhere on the way and explore the area on our bikes. Exactly where, we weren't sure, but the ticket inspector on the train did helpfully suggest getting off at Seelow-Gusow. She even gave us a map, so Seelow-Gusow it was! (Note that this was on the NEB Oderlandbahn, where the ticket inspectors are very friendly, even when we pleaded ignorance for not getting tickets for our bikes. If this had been on the S-Bahn we wouldn't have been given a map, but instead a fine and a boot out at the next stop!).
So what's at Seelow-Gusow? Not an awful lot to be frank: a small, typical, rural East German village with a large collectivised farm. The kind of place that offers tourists plentiful opportunities for a relaxing holiday away from the stresses of urban life (i.e. no shops, no traffic, no people), with numerous Wander- and Fahradwegs (i.e. no proper roads or public transport), rare wildlife (i.e. wolves, wild boar, and vampires), and water-sport activities (i.e. a lake and a flooded meadow). But also a pretty in pink, moated, neo-Gothic Schloss (manor house).
Inside the entrance, the Schloss looked like it hadn't had a tidy up since the nineteenth century, and offered us the temptation of an exhibition of miniature tin soldier dioramas explaining Brandenburg-Prussian history ('Zinnfigurenmuseum'). Which we politely declined. Of more interest might have been the restaurant, but it was currently occupied by about fifty cyclists who had arrived moments before we did and were eating all the cake in the village.
No pierogi and no vodka though. But for some reason there were tall (and I mean about ten metres tall) artificial flowers amongst the woodland round the back, so we thought we'd better move on before things got too weird. You think I'm joking? I swear that this photo is not Photoshopped:
Let's move on to Seelow then.
Actually, we had heard of Seelow for a rather sobering reason. It was here that in the final months of the Second World War, between 16th -19th April, the 91 000 soldiers of the German Ninth Army held out against a million Soviet and Polish soldiers of the 1st Belorussian Front who had pushed across the River Oder and were marching on Berlin.
The outcome was somewhat inevitable, though it took the lives of 33 000 Soviet, 12 000 German, and 5 000 Polish soldiers before the 'Gates of Berlin' were breached and the Soviet troops passed through to engage with what remained of the German army defending Berlin itself. The battle to take the Seelow Heights was the biggest battle of the Second World War on German soil.
Our route from Gusow to Seelow was a steep 5km cycle-ride up to the plateau on which the small town of Seelow lies. Once in the town centre we cycled East, to a ridge on the edge of Seelow overlooking the vast, flat plain which led to the river Oder and the German-Polish border and onwards seemingly all the way to Russia. Here is the location of the battle for the Seelow Heights (Seelower Höhen); today a memorial site with the graves of the fallen Soviets and allies, Gedenkstätte museum, and a gigantic, bronze monument dedicated to the heroes who had died in their struggle against Fascism (so the inscription reads).
After taking in the enormity of the figures for the dead, and the value of the causes for which each side fought, we sombrely free-wheeled down the hill back to Seelow-Gusow station and with seconds to spare caught the next train to Kostrzyn.
The moment you get out of a train in Poland it is immediately apparent that you are in a different country. Even though you are barely five minutes over the border with Germany, wham! Pow! You are hit with an unfamiliar Slavic language on all the signs and posters, and people who have little grasp of German, let alone English.
On the station platform there was a hairdressers, and the station shop sold cheap tobacco and spirits in bulk. So it was true what they say that Germans make special journeys into Poland to stock up on lower duty drugs, and meanwhile get their hair cut. And their teeth done, so I hear. But strangely, there was also an abundance of gynaecologists advertising their services. Most peculiar, and I dare not speculate why that might be.
Anyway, the day is getting on by now, and the sky is getting dark, and you too, dear reader, are probably feeling your eyelids get heavier. What you want to know is, did we get our Pierogi and Polish vodka? The answer is yes, and yes! They were also both very cheap. Will we be going back again though? Probably not in a hurry. Kostrzyn is not, shall we say, the prettiest or most inviting of towns. But it's a train-station border-town that has also had the Soviet army run through it not so long ago, so you wouldn't exactly expect it to be like Stratford-Upon-Avon would you?
So, we'll probably leave another trip for when the pierogi urge becomes too great.
Or we need a hair-cut.
(Or a gynacologist!)