Pole position

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am

When Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany's last kaiser) and Tsar Nicholas II (Russia's last tsar) met in the German port and spa town of Swinemunde on August 4, 1907, the two blue-blooded cousins pledged 'eternal friendship' between their countries while dressed in the militaristic finery of the other side. The kaiser wore the uniform of a Cossack colonel, the tsar the uniform of a Prussian dragoon colonel.

The two-man fancy dress party did nothing to prevent the unfolding of Europe's darkest era. But the meeting did seal Swinemunde's status as northern Europe's most illustrious resort town before the onslaught of war.

Swinemunde went into a steep decline when the first world war broke out seven years later. But worse was to come.

Under the Third Reich, Swinemunde became a major Nazi naval base, and suffered devastating raids by British and US bombers. Then the Red Army took the town towards the end of the second world war (occupying it until 1992) and expelled the civilian population. The area was repopulated by refugees from parts of Poland and incorporated into the Soviet Union.

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

Most Russian military personnel left in 1958, the year that marked the resurgence of Swinoujscie as a spa and resort. In 1959, the Uzdrowiski health firm was established to develop the spa facilities, becoming the town's main employer.

In the 1990s the Germans were back - first with their tourist deutschmarks, then with their euros. It's not hard to see why. Prices are lower across the border, the spa facilities are now world class and Swinoujscie's long white beach is one of the Baltic's finest. Increasing numbers of tourists from other EU countries are also visiting.

The border, 2km to the west, isn't open to cars. Most traffic consists of horse-drawn carts, which would be a tourism cliche if they weren't traditional in most of rural Poland. There's little of the frenetic bustle of most border crossings. Nothing is louder than the clip-clopping of hooves over cobblestones and the cries of larks in the pines and birch trees.

Between the border and Swinoujscie proper is considerable roadside commerce. Stalls offer harvests from the Pomeranian forests: wild berries, edible fungi, white asparagus and smoked boar.

The beach resort is culturally and architecturally German, with magnificent Prussian fin de siecle buildings now home to restaurants serving wurst and foaming drafts of lager. The town around the port, however, is resolutely post-war Polish. Here, the architecture is Soviet, old-timers read the papers or play chess in the town square and workers toil in the shipyard.

Perhaps the most enjoyable way to arrive in Swinoujscie is by ferry from Copenhagen (www.polferries.pl). The night boat takes 11 hours, although a plethora of onboard bars, restaurants, discos, casinos, jacuzzis and saunas makes the journey seem shorter.

By 7am, the pine-tree fringed coast comes into view, then the lighthouse of Poland's most westerly port. When it was built in 1859, Swinoujscie's lighthouse, which is open to the public, was the tallest in the world. At 65 metres, it's possibly the tallest brick lighthouse in existence.

As the ferry turns into the harbour, warships can be seen at the waterfront, a conspicuous sign of Swinoujscie's enduring strategic importance. Given the town's history, the Polish naval presence is understandable. But just along the coast is the villa at which two doomed cousins met on that balmy August day. And it looks just as opulent and serene as it did in 1907.