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How to say 'spa' in Polish

Swinoujscie, straddling a bit of the Baltic Sea, has been washed by centuries of history

Email|Print| Text size + By Nick Walker
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2005

SWINOUJSCIE, Poland -- There are few more bracing experiences than swimming in the Baltic Sea. Even on its most southerly shoreline in the height of summer, the water temperature was, to put it politely, ''refreshing." To my pale skin, the sea felt mentholated. However, I was surrounded by hardier souls who seemed more contented. Joyful yelps filled the salty air.

Every summer and fall, German tourists swarm to this Polish resort town to enjoy its vast beach, renowned inland spa facilities, and party ambience. They don't have to travel far: The border is little more than a mile away.

That border has moved several times over the centuries, but on the most remarkable day in this town's history, Swinoujscie (sveeno-WEESH-che) was on the German side and achieved brief fame as the cosmopolitan port and Prussian spa town of Swinemünde.

When Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany's last kaiser) and Czar Nicholas II (Russia's last czar) met here on Aug. 4, 1907, the two blue-blood cousins pledged ''eternal friendship" between their countries while dressed in the militaristic finery of the other side. Wilhelm wore the uniform of a Cossack colonel, and Nicholas was dressed in the uniform of a Prussian dragoon colonel.

The leaders' symbolic gesture did nothing to prevent the unfolding of the continent's darkest and most blood-drenched era, but the meeting did seal Swinemünde's contemporary status as northern Europe's most illustrious resort town.

Swinemünde (SVEE-ne-mun-da) went into decline when World War I broke out seven years later. Worse was to come. During World War II, the city was a major Nazi naval base, and as a consequence, suffered devastating raids by US and British bombers. At the end of the war, the Red Army overran the town and expelled the entire civilian population, remaining until 1992. The area was repopulated by refugees from areas of Poland abruptly incorporated into the Soviet Union.

Poland took ownership of the strategic Baltic port in 1945, when the border with the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany was newly demarcated through the island of Uznam, giving Poland the extreme eastern tip of the island. Here, Swinoujscie -- as the town has been known since the border change -- now clings to the western periphery of Poland.

Most Soviet military left in 1958, the year that marked the resurgence of Swinoujscie as a popular spa and resort. In 1959, the Uzdrowiska health company was established to develop the town's spa facilities, and the company has long been the town's largest employer.

In the 1990s, the Germans came back, first with their tourist deutsche marks and later with their euros. Today, increasing numbers of tourists from other European countries enjoy this reborn destination, which is still an excellent value despite Poland's fairly steep inflation.

The border, a 20-minute stroll to the west, is not open to cars. Most of the traffic here consists of horse-drawn carts -- touristy, perhaps, but also traditional in much of rural Poland. There's little of the frenetic bustle of most border-crossing points; nothing is louder than the clip-clopping of hooves over cobblestones on the Polish side and the larks in the pine and birch trees.

Between the border and Swinoujscie proper, there's considerable roadside commerce. Stalls offer a harvest of the Pomeranian forests to visitors: wild berries, edible fungi, white asparagus, amber-colored jars of honeycomb, and thick slices of smoked boar. All are priced in both euros and zlotys, the Polish currency.

I notice one of the vendors speaking English with French tourists. After they move on, I can't resist purchasing a small box of mixed forest berries from Lech, a thirtysomething with soft gray eyes and sharp Slavic cheekbones. He tells me he used to be a taxi driver in New York.

''I'm not a big-city guy," he says, explaining why he is back in his hometown. ''I missed Swinoujscie every day in America." I ask him about his attachment to this town. ''Family. We Poles are very family-based. And the nature. Autumn's especially fantastic here."

How does he feel about his business?

''I can gather mushrooms and berries three miles from the center of town," he says. ''Couldn't do that in Queens. Don't miss driving. Business is good at this stall. And in the winter, I help my father in his hardware shop."

Were most of his customers German? ''Almost all of them. They can bargain just a bit too much sometimes," he laments. Then his face lights up. ''It's understandable. The Polish economy is doing much better than Germany's!"

There's another, unofficial border that bisects the town. The beach resort area is culturally and architecturally German, with many magnificent Prussian fin-de-siecle buildings now home to restaurants serving wurst and foaming drafts of lager.

Meanwhile, the area around the port is resolutely postwar Polish. Here the architecture is mostly 1970s Eastern Bloc, the eateries serve local staples during obiad (late-afternoon ''lunch," the main meal of the Polish day), old-timers read the papers or play chess in the town square, workers and fishermen toil in the shipyard and fishing-boat quay, and students play soccer in the park -- perhaps imagining glory in next year's World Cup against their perennial rival, host nation Germany.

Although Swinoujscie is less than three hours from Berlin by road or rail, the most leisurely way to reach the town is by ferry from the Danish capital, Copenhagen. In summer and autumn, most crossings are mirror smooth. The night boat takes 11 hours, although a plethora of bars, restaurants, discos, casinos, Jacuzzis, and saunas makes the journey seem much shorter.

By 7 a.m., the pine tree-fringed coast comes into view, and then the lighthouse of Poland's most westerly port. When it was built in 1859 on the cusp of the town's golden age, this landmark was the tallest lighthouse in the world.

As the boat turns into the harbor, several Polish warships can be seen lined up by the waterfront, a sign of Swinoujscie's historic strategic importance. Just along the coast is the villa at which two doomed cousins met on that balmy August day. It looks as opulent and serene as it must have in 1907.

Back on the beach, I strike up a conversation with Adelle Weiss, 27, a schoolteacher from Dresden, Germany, as we wait for some roasted cod (a popular Swinoujscie snack) and soda at a kiosk.

''Do you come here every year?" I attempt in my rusty German.

''My second time here," she replies in almost flawless English. ''My family loves the beach. And the 'zloty zone' is much cheaper than the 'euro zone,' " she adds with a smile.

''You know this used to be a German town?" I ask.

''Of course I do." Then she softens. ''My husband and I were talking about this recently. He remarked that the first Germans to visit Poland after the end of the Second World War were certainly very brave tourists."

Our roasted cod arrives on paper plates, along with two local-brand cherry sodas. We sit down on a wooden bench behind the kiosk and tuck into our freshly prepared ''dorsz" with wooden forks.

''I saw you in the water yesterday," she says. ''You didn't stay in long, did you? The trick is to brave it out past 10 minutes. Then it feels perfectly warm."

Contact Nick Walker, a freelance writer in England, at nick@balticbureau.com.

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