hidden europe 12

A Polish port: Frombork

by Nicky Gardner


In Frombork, a tiny port on Poland's Baltic coast, the ferry terminal has closed down for the winter. A lone fisherman sits at the end of the pier and looks out over the lagoon to Russia. But the town where Nicolaus Copernicus lived and worked turns out to have a rare off-season appeal.

We have remarked before in hidden europe that great ports have their own peculiar appeal. Whether it be Bilbao or Brindisi, Cádiz or Constanta, cities with wharves and warehouses can be fabulously exotic places. Foreign voices mingle on quaysides and in cafés. The docks where cranes work by day become ghostly arcades by night. Behind the waterfront, there is the jumbled chaos of commerce, places where wealth and poverty sit cheek by jowl, and out beyond the docks, the mud coloured nooks where the water rats run.

But what of the onetime ports whose fortunes have faded? Europe is dotted with little havens whose names are no longer writ large on the navigation charts. Places like Rye in southeast England or Ribe in Danish Jutland, where the evolution of landscape over many centuries has left onetime ports without easy access to the sea. In Poland, the small town of Frombork was never a major port. But it made a modest income through fishing, some coastal shipping lines and the diligent industry of export and import. hidden europe has visited this Polish outpost that found itself curiously inconvenienced by the redrawing of post-war borders.

In the still of an autumn morning, a lone swan patrols the inner harbour. From his lookout, Pawel scans the still waters in the bay, his eyes running the length of the distant spit: from the small Polish resort of Krynica Morska up to the Russian border and beyond. At one minute to nine, Pawel puts down the binoculars, and, just as every morning, he runs down the steps from the coastguard station and across to the neat enclosure that houses an array of meteorological instruments. There he takes the day's readings, entering details of temperature, visibility and other observations into a notebook. It is a routine that has been enacted at Frombork's harbour for as long as Pawel can remember.

Two concrete breakwaters push out from the harbour into the shallow waters of the lagoon. One hundred years ago, Frombork had a different name: Frauenburg. In those days, the town made a good living from exporting timber. And, especially after the arrival of the railway in 1899, tourists would come from Berlin and other German cities to enjoy days of Baltic sunshine. They expected nothing more than a week or two of recuperation. An excursion by boat across to Kahlberg on the spit perhaps, where the children might play happily on the sand dunes, or walks in the forests behind Frauenburg, and long summer days enjoying East Prussian hospitality under the shadow of the town's great red-brick cathedral. Then the visitors would buy little pieces of amber as souvenirs and return to their normal lives back in their home cities.

This is a port that finds itself strangely isolated from the open sea. The shallow-draft barges that exported wood could reach the Baltic only by sailing north across the lagoon to reach the single opening through the great Vistula (Wisla) spit between Neutief and Pillau. Today Pillau is the Russian naval port of Baltijsk.

It was an accident of nature, a single storm, that opened this great lagoon to the sea.

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