Brexit. It’s been nearly three years since the British electorate voted by a small margin to leave the European Union. It’s been two years since Article 50 was triggered and the withdrawal negotiations began. It’s enough to summarise the events since then as a complete dog’s breakfast. Nobody on either side of the debate looks set to get what they wanted, and Parliament has disappeared down a wormhole of “meaningful votes” without any constructive progress being made. I could tell you the status at the time of writing, but it’ll all be different by the time this article is published. Different but the same, no doubt. The only thing that has been certain throughout, is that the UK’s relationship with Europe will change.
European motoring holidays used to be an adventure. Back in the middle of the 20th Century, the Continent was undiscovered territory for most Brits. The man of the house may have previously visited, but it was likely he would have been shot at whilst doing so or rolled up in a tank and personally liberated his destination. The post war growth of private motoring opened Europe up as a destination for the fortunate few, and their numbers grew until package holidays and cheaper flights shifted the focus of continental holidays to the resorts of the Mediterranean. For those who value the journey as much as the destination, something was lost. With Brexit coming, March 2019 felt a good time to go for a final look around. My partner, Cath, and I looked over the maps. The obvious route would be an anticlockwise loop of the heart of the EU, roughly circling Germany whilst travelling through as many neighbouring countries as possible; France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, across Germany, Holland, Belgium and back to France. Eagle eyed readers will have spotted that not all of those countries are EU Member States, but it seemed rude to pass them by. However, with the nine days we had available, we would have barely had time to get out of the car.
A different plan was required, and if we couldn’t tour the EU we could go and find the edge instead. Our nearest frontier with the EU is Switzerland but that seemed too easy. Liechtenstein and Norway were equally safe options. No, in order to get that true frontier feeling we had to look east. The Russian border was the ideal candidate and it bumps into the European Union at Latvia and Lithuania, but a return trip to either of those two countries would be a stretch in nine days. Conveniently for us however, the Soviets had spent 1944 blowing through East Prussia and as part of the 1945 Potsdam Agreement they negotiated ownership of the Baltic port of Königsberg. This small annexed territory was in a highly tactical location for the Soviet naval fleet and was swiftly re-designated as the Kaliningrad Oblast. With the native Prussians driven out, the city region was closed to outsiders and selectively repopulated with ethnic Russians. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and subsequent independence declarations in the Baltic states, Kaliningrad became completely isolated from the rest of Russia. Today it remains a key strategic military location and home to long range missiles, but also sustains itself as a Special Economic Zone. It’s not really a holiday destination but it’s a line on the map at the edge of Poland, and therefore the edge of the European Union. It would be daft to drive 2,000 km each way merely so we could u-turn at a barrier – but just across the Bay of Gdansk and still safely in Poland we found a place called Hel. We could tell people we were going to Hel. They’d hear that as “Hell” and that would be amusing. That would be a good enough reason.
Choosing our transport was easy. I’ve previously extolled the virtues of the BMW E36 on ViaRETRO, but this really was a time to put my money where my mouth is. The E36 in question belongs to Cath. It’s a four-cylinder 318is coupé and it’s 22 years old this year. She bought it for very little money from a man who claimed to be moving to Australia, but we’ve since driven it without mishap to Cape Wrath and back, and roundly abused it on many autosolos. It’s a relatively simple, tough and discreet car, therefore perfect for a journey into the unknown badlands behind what used to be called the Iron Curtain. Our pre-trip preparation consisted of washing it and applying a suitably retro GB sticker. East bound and down.
Once upon a time the UK was due to leave the EU on 29th March 2019. Not wanting to get caught in the predicted chaos at the ports, we set out two weeks ahead so we’d be back in time before the gates were locked for ever. It was a stormy time for UK politics and a force nine gale buffeted the dawn ferry across the Channel. Since the demise of the hovercraft, the ferry is the only proper way for a gentleman to make the crossing. Besides, due to the entertaining sea state we had the sun deck all to ourselves, with less experienced seafarers all either lashing themselves to the ship’s superstructure or talking to Ralph down the great white telephone. The only disappointment of every Channel crossing is ending up in Northern France. I appreciate that Kent is The Toilet of England but Pas-de-Calais is an appallingly threadbare welcome mat. If you’re a fan of graffiti, broken glass or electricity pylons you may disagree but I find the best way to deal with it is to make for Belgium as fast as legally possible. Belgium and the Netherlands are far more agreeable and pave the way towards Germany.
Germany offered the first opportunity to really stretch our legs. Many UK motorways are now “smart motorways” with speed management enforced by cameras. A nameless drone in a control room thinks of a round number between 40 and 60 and makes it appear on an electronic gantry. They may do so at 5pm on a Friday or 3am on a Sunday, but it doesn’t matter because the objective of the game is to make all three lanes crawl as a rolling roadblock regardless of actual traffic volume. Do this often enough and drivers will zone out sufficiently that it becomes habit, even when they’re not on a smart motorway. In the minds of millions, the motorway speed limit is now 50mph and overtaking is a hate crime against society. Germany is pretty much free from this curse and joyfully still has derestricted sections where no speed limit applies. The prospect of something rapid hammering down the outside at 150mph encourages lane discipline and it’s notable how much better the traffic flows. General cruising speeds are moderate but to be able to manage your own road position without fear of immediate draconian action is an enormous luxury. To a UK driver, achieving 100mph is a rarity and to do it when pulling away from a police car feels particularly illicit. The gearing on the 318is is quite short and in deference to its mileage (which it reveals for a blink of an eye every few thousand miles only) we didn’t much exceed the magic ton for very long, but it’s happy at a steady 90mph and so are we.
Our home for the night was Celle, a historic town well stocked with 16th century timber framed houses and a castle that probably looks more impressive without the scaffold and sheeting. Most interestingly from a ViaRETRO point of view were the parking arrangements at our hotel, which involved disappearing down a dead-end alleyway and taking a hidden car lift to the basement. I really must get one installed at home. That evening we stood outside one of the extremely smoky mandatory smoking bars and mused that sightings of interesting cars had so far been thin on the ground. There were the remains of a Karmann-Ghia on a trailer and an Ascona C with a radically reprofiled wing but not much else. Our prime find was a 300,000km five-pot Passat B2 towing a Trabant, which caught up with us at a service station. A chat with the owner revealed he rented both cars out for filming and they were off to Berlin for a drama set in the late 80s. If they turn up in the forthcoming Deutschland 89 TV serial, I wouldn’t be surprised. We’ll be ok in Poland, I mused whilst enjoying the free of charge passive smoke. There’ll be loads of old cars to look at there.
The post war division of Germany still holds a fascination for me, so we wanted to cross into the old East properly. Rather than just flashing past a nondescript county boundary marker on the motorway we headed for the new bridge at Rothenhusen, which stands on the site of the Cold War era crossing. There’s not much there but the transition from Schleswig-Holstein into Mecklenburg comes with a change to a cobbled road, so it’s atmospheric if nothing else. Economically speaking, Germany is still a divided country and traversing the northernmost autobahn shows that the far corner is forgotten territory. Nearly any company you’ve ever heard of is headquartered miles away on the Ruhr or the Rhine and after reunification the former GDR experienced a population flight towards the West. The traffic thins out and the most common sight from the road is that of wooden observation towers. It’s possible there has been a boom in birdwatching since 1989, but I suspect they may predate this and they weren’t built for keeping tabs on wildfowl.
We’re heading for Heringsdorf, one of group of seaside resorts that was popularised by Kaiser Wilhelm II and became known as the Bathtub of Berlin. GDR party elders continued the trend during the Cold War and today the Baltic resorts are a mixture of new development and old communist decay. It doesn’t help being miles from anywhere but the money still hasn’t filtered through and there’s a feeling that unification was something that happened to other people – at least on a cold day in March. Searching for a beer we dodged the most miserable St Patrick’s Day party I’ve ever had the misfortune to accidentally enter. It wasn’t even St. Patrick’s Day. The overnight halt at Heringsdorf was also the scene of our first technical glitch with the E36. The washer jets had packed up so I executed an expert repair by wiggling the pipes until fluid once again ran freely. I am a genius.
The following morning we visited the supermarket to stock up on essentials for the onward journey, namely beer, rum chocolate for an additional alcohol hit and a German classic car magazine so I could assess the state of play with regards to old Eastern bloc cars. It appears that a Lada is now worth five figures. That’s ten times what we paid for the decadent western BMW. Whilst trying to process this information we almost missed the Polish border entirely, marked at Swinoujscie by the road simply dropping away by about six inches. It was 25 years since I was last in Poland but the country is still a work in progress. As we rattled down the cobbles into the outskirts of town, it was clear that whilst the German side of the border was a blend of new developments and communist decay, the Polish side was missing one of those elements. From Swinoujscie it’s a short trundle to the ferry at Karsibór and the crossing over the Swina river into Poland proper.
Our destination for the day would be the Hel Peninsula, home to the village of the same name. We had been concerned that this leg of 377km could be a stretch too far and that poor roads would mean taking an age to travel such distance, but it quickly became apparent that it wouldn’t be the problem we imagined. There is a major roadbuilding project underway, linking Szczecin (Stettin) in the west to Gdansk in the east and one day you’ll be able to whisk through on the motorway. However, it’s not yet complete and those sections which may look complete aren’t yet open, so the existing main roads remain the best cross country option. They’re generally quite well surfaced and wide, so the Poles compensate for the lack of a motorway by just doing motorway speeds on the normal roads instead. We’re not easily fazed but it took a moment to appreciate the unofficial rules of the road. Overtaking that lorry? So is the car behind, and now it’s simultaneously overtaking you. Oh look, a mirror image of the same scenario simultaneously coming the other way. Interesting. We had front row seats for the Polish heats of the World Tailgating Championships and greatly enjoyed watching the Blind Bend Daredevils of Koszalin County in their natural habitat. To be fair, we didn’t see a single accident or genuine near miss in our few days in Poland. Maybe they all have ninja-like reactions or they’re just the right side of drunk enough. Whatever, it seems to work…
Against the odds we arrived alive at the Hel Peninsula. Shielding the Bay of Gdansk from the fury of the Baltic, the peninsula is a 35km long sand bar which gets as narrow as 100 metres, just enough for the road and railway which run down to its 3km wide tip. We stopped off at the military fortifications which were completed just in time for the German army to overwhelm and capture them in September 1939, before continuing onward until the road ran out at the village of Hel. I can report that Hel is everything you might imagine it to be. Communist brutalism sits alongside the old main street, where 200 year old cottages have been tarted up to look less attractive. For somewhere that gave a title to our adventure, it was underwhelming. To be fair, we were out of season in late afternoon and the Riviera Disco was closed. Then the storm blew in. The temperature toppled like a deposed dictator. Gallons of water lashed down as we took shelter in a doorway, and as the hail fell like enemy fire it appeared for a moment that Hel might actually freeze over. Under blackened skies we beat a retreat as everywhere was closed. I spotted my first FSO of the trip and unexpectedly found a Rover 100, but that concludes my report from Hel. I hope that wasn’t the bit you were specifically waiting for.
After overnighting just up the peninsula at Jurata which was also largely closed and flooded, we set out for the real destination of our trip. Today was our personal Brexit day. We could have applied for a visa to enter Kaliningrad Oblast but stepping just the other side of the sign would be enough for our purposes. Anyway, I don’t think it’s the type of place you enter only to come back to the border crossing 15 minutes later saying, “Ok, that was great, can we go back to Poland again now please, we’ve done what we need to do”. There are a few ways into the Oblast, but wanting to ensure the right atmosphere we’d selected the northernmost crossing, located at the village of Gronowo, population 119. You may confuse it with one of the other Gronowos that are available, but I feel this one is the best. It’s in Braniewo County; the county town being dominated by a large army barracks staffed by keen recruits just waiting for the morning the tanks roll over the border. So it goes that we arrive to the sound of automatic weapons fire and prowl slowly over the railway tracks into the middle of town. We stop at the petrol station to use the last toilet in the EU and buy a coffee. The police glance out of their car window and I notice they’re riding around four-up. There are numerous cars with Russian numberplates and they all seem to be big and black. Some people are obviously doing well around here, which is nice. With our thoughts gathered we pull back onto the main road and aim for the border when the car stubbornly refuses to go into second gear. We lose speed. I try again. Nothing. We nearly stop. The car behind looks impatient. I try again but we still have no drive. I glance down. I remove my phone from the back of the gear lever gaiter and away we go.
So this is it; the edge of the European Union. We stand between the barrier and the Welcome to the EU sign. Cath and I have technically Brexited, according to the sign anyway. It’s highly possible the UK is still a member of the EU by the time this article is published, so if you’re wondering what Brexit may be like, it’s fine really. You get the feeling of being watched but the people don’t intrude and there’s a choice of two wheelie bins. Prior to the trip, friends and colleagues asked why we were going. Mountain climbers would reply “because it’s there”, and I know all we’d done was sit in a moderately old car for a few days, but we felt a small sense of achievement nonetheless. The best trips are essentially pointless. There’s a bar in Gronowo, but it didn’t look to be our scene so we turned west again. Besides, having looked around a bit we’d gone under a CCTV festooned gantry on the main road three times already, so we figured we’d better go somewhere else for a while.
There’s a point in every journey where you stop travelling further away and start returning home, and we left the frontier behind. Over the next couple of days we wound our way back through Poland via Elbląg, Łeba and Stettin. Theresa May gate-crashed the television to state that the actual Brexit had been delayed. The Polish channels stuck with hit quiz show Milionerzy; eager contestant Damian disgraced himself by going home with only 1,000 zl, even though the answer was clearly dwutienek wegla. On the other side was a light-hearted quiz about NATO. Perhaps he would have done better at that. I bought a Polish classic car magazine to see if I could solve the mystery of where all the old cars had disappeared to, but it turned out to be largely a translation of a German magazine and contained no classified adverts whatsoever. I found another FSO Caro in Elbląg but exploring the backstreets yielded nothing further. A row of old lock up garages could have been hiding a treasure trove for all I knew, but I wouldn’t get to find out. Near Pogorszewo I did a double take as we flashed past a filling station and we spun around to retrace our steps. I thought I had imagined it but hidden in plain sight behind the bus stop lay an abandoned fighter jet, and behind that a derelict bi-plane. We had somehow failed to notice them when heading northbound the previous day. It’s amazing what you miss when you’re looking the other way. The road back through Koszalin yielded a few glimpses of old rubbish tucked behind chain link fences and a Fiat 126 stood proud on the pavement, but general Polish traffic is as modern as anything you’d find in the West. It runs incongruously past the Soviet-era tower blocks. The cars have moved on but much of the built environment has stayed the same.
Following a night in Stettin spent perfecting new ways to avoid getting mugged, we breached the German border en-route to Goslar, where I sought inspiration from a ride on the spring seal in front of the bank. Everybody needs a place to think. Needing to find some level of old car interest we stopped at Wolfsburg and toured the VW AutoMuseum, which you can read about separately. The things I do for you people. My expectations for finding rammel in the wild were lower as we kept heading west, and our Coupé was frequently the oldest car in our bubble of traffic. It may be a mere youngtimer, but the 20th Century has long since faded away into memory. We made our final overnight halt in Ypres, or “Wipers” as it has been known to us islanders since 1914. It’s a town we know well and the back streets can usually be relied upon for some mild automotive interest, this time offering a BMW E28 as a prime find with bonus points for being the undesirable 524td model. But then, whilst searching for food and beer over the noise of the travelling fairground in front of the Cloth Hall, we stumbled into a place we’d never noticed before. L’Atelier, which translates as The Workshop, is a restaurant owned by a Mini collector and rally driver. As we sat in the window and toasted our success, we did so in the company of a handful of other diners and a Historic Rally specification Mini. Old cars sometimes turn up where you least expect them. Don’t seek and ye shall probably find.
By the time we switched off the ignition for the final time the following afternoon, we had been on the road for nine days. In that time we’d covered 2,751 miles or 4,425 km in European parlance. We calculated our fuel economy and double checked the figure of 40 mpg average, which given the sustained high speed pasting is remarkable. If you were hoping for tails of ratchet strapping the gearbox back in or making a headgasket out of a cornflake box, you’ll have to remain disappointed. Apart from a brief grumble about Polish regular unleaded which was resolved with a change to Super, it didn’t miss a beat. I’ve long held out that the E36 range, thirty years old next year, make excellent dailies and this trip conclusively proved my point once again. I didn’t expect that we’d be driving one of the oldest cars on any given section of Polish road though. I expected to find a lot more old tat still in daily use and imagined I could come back with an impressive photo montage for your entertainment. Oh well, as the proverb goes; the road to Hel is paved with good intentions.