Webber gets intrepid in gold train territory
It was what, two weeks or so ago that I found myself thrust into the spotlight, being grilled live on air by none other than TFN’s own Patrick Ney as part of his Heart of Poland series of interviews?
To those that bore witness to my incoherent musings and babblingly idiotic manner, I can only apologize and offer the weak excuse that I can’t talk in public.
Unfortunately, I can’t think in public either.
Put on the spot as to “the best place in Poland”, I answered with the first word that came into my head: the economic calamity that some know as Wałbrzych.
Or maybe not. In an interview defined by my own vaguely aggressive posturing (I was nervous, got it’?), it was perhaps the one point I can look back on with an element of pride.
Sure, Wałbrzych is something of an unorthodox choice, but my reasoning was sound. Though struggling with the lingering effects of economic cancer, it’s well-documented post-industrial paralysis has had a side-effect of rendering much of the town frozen in time.
Just beyond the smartly renovated Old Town, those that visit find themselves on cracked, cobbled streets flanked by frail tenements still bearing German lettering. When the shadows are long and the only sounds are the distant shrieks of warring cats, it’s not a stretch to picture yourself treading in the inter-war footsteps of Detective Eberhard Mock. Frankly, it’s amazing.
For this inimitable atmosphere I can say I love Wałbrzych, but I love it even more for what lies around it.
The Owl Mountains are nothing if not striking – scenic and ethereal, to penetrate the dense woodland that coddles them is to find yourself sucked into a mysterious almost hyper-spiritual world that one imagines to be inhabited by fairies and hobbits.
It’s a mesmerizing backdrop, and one that compliments my hotel of choice in the region: the Jugowice Palace, a pristine white mansion of zen-like calm. With a local craft beer in hand, there’s no better place to crack open a book about Nazi wunderwaffen and permit the imagination to freely caper.
And no, I’m not being weird, for doing just that is a well-practiced pastime around this part of Poland.
If at face value the Owl Mountains appear sedate, then consider that a smokescreen. Their history is laced with drama of the highest order. Proof of this lies in Książ Castle, a unique architectural pearl whose complex 700-year story involves an English princess, a heap of ghosts (Poland’s best spooky tour: you’ve just found it), and… Hitler.
Though he never personally visited, his Luftwaffe lapdog, Nicolaus von Below, did – twice, in an apparent effort to supervise the castle’s conversion into the Fuhrer’s retreat. The Nazis, you see, had a fasciation with the Owls, and it didn’t stop with Książ.
From 1943 onwards it is estimated that 30,000 people, the majority being Jewish slave labourers, were ordered to carve out a series of tunnels running below the Owl Mountains as part of a top secret undertaking titled Project Riese (or, in English, Giant).
Now I am not using the words top secret lightly. Decades on, we still don’t have the foggiest what the tunnels were for – nor, even, how many there were.
Thus far historians guess that only a third have been discovered, and although it is highly likely that some of these (such as the ones below Książ Castle) were intended for the use of high ranking Nazis, the majority remain a mystery.
Some speculate they were built to hide factories majoring in the production of Hitler’s wonder weapons, others that the tunnels were storage vaults designed for hording stolen loot. The truth is, no-one really knows.
In spite of this – or perhaps because – they have captured the imagination. Treasure hunters – both sanctioned and amateur – flock, most recently in the hunt for “The Gold Train”, a swag-filled transport that arrived from Wrocław (then Breslau) just prior to the war’s conclusion only to then disappear forever.
Of the seven major tunnel networks to have been found, three are open to the public, and I can recommend all whether you’re a history buff or just seek something different: for instance, negotiating the flooded parts of the Włodarz complex in a paddle raft.
But if there’s a favourite, then let Osówka stand above the others. Reached by narrow, corkscrewing roads, the biggest labyrinth to open to the public presents itself by way of a galaxy of hazards: shin-deep gunk, jutting rocks, slippery duckboards and phantom steps. You remove the pre-issued hard hats at your peril.
The rewards are ample. Covering a 1.5 kilometre trail, group-guided explorations begin with a display of arms recovered post-war from local Werewolf Nazi resistance groups before plunging forth down a path that varies from tight passages to cathedral like caverns.
Only, however, when you are truly lost inside this maze do you truly appreciate its scale. And yes, I am that idiot that has been lost.
As all matters of catastrophe do, it started innocuously enough. I was there to scribble up a travel feature, accompanied only by a photographer determined to “do the job” and get action-packed shots of me being foolish.
“I need you to look like Indiana Jones,” went his instructions.
“Peer from behind that rock,” he continued. “I need you to look steely.”
Imitating Harrison Ford is a big ask at the best of times, but it’s damn near impossible of a fat bloke from Bristol. So we were there for a while. Finally finished, it was then that it dawned we were now alone. Our tour guide had gone. Vanished.
If I’m not entirely sure as to my favourite place in Poland, I do know the scariest: that’s locked and lost within a Nazi tunnel. And yeah, I should also probably add that we were locked in as well.
With claustrophobia growing startlingly intense, we did somehow make it back to our start line, only to note with alarm that the gate had been locked and there was no-one in sight. Trapped.
I’d like to say it all ended happily, but it actually really didn’t. We weren’t entirely alone, for while pawing at the barred entrance, and failing to pick the padlock using tips gleaned from MacGyver, we found ourselves surprised by a strangely figureless shape emerging from the dank. A German, nonetheless, and one delighted with the overall situation.
“You too are also trapped,” he declared triumphantly, before venturing back from whence he came.
A ghost? Possibly.
A lesson learned? Definitely: never be swayed into impersonating Indiana Jones.
It’s a rule that I adhere to this very day.