Yes, now with only one “L” as a cost-cutting measure. Because of the economic crisis we need to implement savings where we can. And Hel (now with only one “L”) is not recession-proof either, you know? (Or maybe it is, the upcoming summer season will show.)
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of Hel – there’s a photograph circulating on the internet of a purported timetable of a Hel-bound bus, number 666 of course. Don’t believe it, it’s ‘shopped. Actually, it’s bus number 654 that serves Hel and its environs. The very “clever” English speaker who took and ‘shopped that photo apparently forgot that some Poles might actually LIVE in Hel and use that bus on a daily basis. And even understand English (yes, a totally novel and unthinkable concept, I know). Which just proves once again that you can’t believe everything you see on the internet.
So, the photo is fake but the town is very much real. And people really live there. And even more people visit it every year, though mainly in the summer. And that’s when Hel turns into hell for real.
Oh, yes, there’s a town called Hel in Poland. It’s at the very end (or beginning – it all depends on whether you’re in Sweden or Slovakia) of this lovely country. And since most people can’t agree whether it’s the end or the beginning, let’s settle on a “tip” instead. Because that’s exactly what Hel is – a tiny tip of land jutting out into the sea. The sea in question being the Baltic, of course. And the moron who wrote a Been There blog entry for The Guardian calling this puny oversized inland lake “the Baltic Ocean” was wrong. Which just proves once again that you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.
But where were we? Oh yes, Hel. It’s a lovely place. Really. This you can believe.
Last Saturday I went there myself to see what the fuss was all about. And while I’m still not sure what’s so special about it, I must agree that Hel is a very fine place indeed. It’s just different than the rest of Poland (though admittedly, I’m no expert on the subject here), and not just because it’s surrounded by the Baltic sea on three sides. The fourth side is a narrow strip of mostly sand connecting it with the mainland. And the strip is truly narrow, but not as narrow as the moron in The Guardian had claimed. It’s actually 147 meters wide at its narrowest point. How do I know it? I GPSed it. So there. (And yes, I do have OCD, OK?)
What else? Hel is the name of both the peninsula and the town at its tip. As recently as the 17th century the peninsula used to be a string of islands. And the tip was a restricted area well into the late 80s. Back then (and I mean the 80s here, not the 17th century) you could visit it on a hydrofoil from Tri-city, but driving in required special permits. Why was that? Almost the entire peninsula was one huge army/navy base. After the second world war most native Kashubians were either “politely invited” to relocate elsewhere or equally “politely invited” to work for the armed forces. And since with all the military activity fishing was no longer a viable option, people either accepted the invitation to move to the mainland or crossed over to the dark side.
These days the former military installations are open to the public and you can take photos next to strategically positioned tanks or read multi-lingual information boards about fallout shelters in the woods (maintained and on standby until 1985 or so) or air defense whatnots (hey, I’m a girl, I don’t know about these things) which were fully operational until the very end of the Cold War.
Some parts of the peninsula are still fenced off with barbed wire with ominous-looking signs “Military Area - Keep Out”. Though in one spot there was a gap in the fence with a steady stream of hikers going back and forth. See? These days even the military knows you can’t mess with nature loving, tree hugging, day pack carrying families on their weekend hikes.
And if hiking’s not your thing (definitely not my thing either) then there’s a bike path for your convenience. You can bike it all the way from Wladyslawowo to the very end of the peninsula. But because biking’s not my thing either, I chose to drive.
The drive is lovely, however once in Hel, you’re presented with another problem. Where in hell are you supposed to park? Unfortunately, this is a common problem in areas surrounded by water on three (or four) sides. The fact that the space is very much finite makes the already existing parking lots ridiculously expensive. And the already existing parking lots are all you’re gonna get. Unfortunately, this is not Asia where they can dump trash into the ocean to build artificial parking lot islands. So if paying 4 PLN an hour for parking during the high season is your idea of fun, then by all means, you can drive to Hel, no problem.*
Luckily, the season hasn’t started yet, and what I saw last weekend was a charming, sleepy town with a tacky seaside (dreadful), a museum (don’t know if it’s worth a visit, it seemed closed when we were there), a lighthouse (worth the climb, really, the little booklet about its history is worth buying too, 8 PLN, just ignore the funky language and obvious copyright infringements), two beaches (one seemed to smell a bit), a place to admire and study the Baltic seals (Fokarium, haven’t been there) and more fried fish joints than you can shake a stick at (we tried two, both were good).
A couple of words about the Fokarium. They have a summer volunteer program. And yes, it’s free. They provide accommodation but not food. And unfortunately, you have to speak some Polish. If you’re interested, just google it yourself, or email me, OK?
One thing that disappointed me about Hel was the lack of bilingual (Kashubian) signs. There were such signs in other villages on the peninsula, and it’s a pity that for whatever reason they couldn’t be found in Hel itself. I’m a fan of all things Kashubian, and for a place as iconicly Kashubian as Hel, this seems to be a serious oversight.
What else? If you feel the urge to stay in Hel overnight, during the season you might have a problem. Even though almost every private house has a sign outside saying “pokoje, rooms, zimmer,” the natives say everything books up well in advance.
Oh yes, the natives! I’m no expert, but they must be among some of the most laid back, easy going people in all of Poland. Smiling, friendly, helpful, eager to please, sell, serve and then sell some more. I guess living in one of the most beautiful areas of the country does that to you. I’d be smiling all day too, if I lived in Hel. It’s either that, all this hiking and breathing the clean sea-scented air, or they grow some strong stuff in those woods of theirs. All those “Military Area” and “Keep Out” signs? Yeah, right…
* To avoid this problem take a hydrofoil from Tri-city.