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New Europe

Day Ninety-nine: Elblag to Warsaw

Ostróda-Elbląg canal 
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A lock with a difference. As we're hauled up the hill on the Ostróda-Elbląg canal we pass another boat being carried down.
Michael Palin - New EuropeElblag is another town which was knocked apart in the war. Hitler's U-boats were built at the shipyards here, making it a major target for Allied bombers. It's been restored, but with nothing like the élan of Gdansk. Cheap, and not very cheerful, concrete caricatures of the tall, thin Dutch-style gabled houses fill the city centre. The grandest building is the Gothic cathedral, whose staggeringly tall tower, topped with a many-tiered stack of balustrades, steeples and subsidiary domes, catches the morning sunlight beside the still waters of the Ostroda-Elblag canal. On this waterway, opened in 1860 and running for just under 50 miles, we embark on a leisurely cruise south through the wetlands of the Mazurian Lakes.

Conditions are good. The skies are clear and there's not a breath of wind to ruffle the glassy surface of the water.

At eight o'clock, with the cathedral bells tolling, we set off, passing quite soon beneath the bridge of the railway that took away most of the economic justification for the canal trade. Now the waterway is used to take tours through the combination of peaty water, thick reed-beds, marsh and woodland which have been a protected nature reserve for the last forty years. Our boat, the 'Labedz' (the 'Swan'), is functional rather than fetching, 100 feet long with a solid, steel-plated hull.

Black-headed gulls, cormorants, grebes, terns, marsh harriers, greylag geese and a white-tailed eagle can be seen scouting the reed-beds as we meander along, being overtaken by the odd vole.

After two hours of this rural ride we come to the first of five quirky feats of engineering that are the real reason why so many people are attracted to this spectacularly unhurried form of transport.

The canal appears to have come to a dead end. A grassy hill lies ahead of us, and that's all. Then, after a certain amount of barked instructions, a bell sounds and the 'Labedz' finds herself in the grip of an underwater iron cradle and, gradually lifted from the water on the end of a steel cable, she emerges onto dry land, like some great creature from the deep, dripping slime and weeds. Secured in our trolley, which is mounted on rails, we gather on deck to look in disbelief at our ship's stately progress up the hill. A family working in the fields below barely acknowledge a boat sailing at 45 degrees up a slope above them.

Halfway up we meet another boat going down, and a few minutes later and 42 feet higher than when we started, we're gently deposited back in the canal. Released from our cage, we chug on until the whole process has to be repeated again.

In the next two hours we climb four more of these marvellous slipways, the steepest of which raises us over 80 feet through fields on one side and woodland on the other. The sensation of standing on the deck of a ship whilst rising through dappled beech woods is dream-like, but wonderfully soothing, and when we have to leave the canal and continue by road towards Warsaw I can't help feeling we've exchanged the world of Mole and Badger and are back with Mr Toad.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-nine: Elblag to Warsaw
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Elbląg
  • Book page no: 234

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