Where the Hel am I?
It's all very well Dante advocating that the middle of life is the time to
take a tour of Hell, but where exactly is it? The best the atlas could offer
was a little fishing port in
By Jeremy Atiyah
I am standing in the middle of
30 September 2000
In my case, I'm hoping that an earthly town called Hell will do. I've found two of them in my atlas: one is in clean and pleasant
Getting to Harwich, mind you, is almost cushy. One lift from a grumpy English man and his pleasant Dutch wife and I'm there, embarking the ferry. No drama. For the rest of that evening I'll be on the lookout for white-haired boatmen-of-death bawling Woe to the wicked!, but all I can see are British couples hiding behind Sunday newspapers all the way to
The next morning looks bad, though. I find myself in a drizzly Dutch town that I will spend five hours trying to hitch out of. Apart from two bleating sheep,
Eventually, a man in a Jeep stops. His odd diction emerges in an extremely strong Scottish accent. What man art thou, he seems to say, that free and dangerless, thus in deep Hell dost place thy living feet? Ah! He is in fact speaking Dutch. I want a lift, I tell him. He nods but drives away.
It is obvious that I fit the description of an evil child-rapist in this town. The only person who is eventually brave enough to pick me up is a stoned cockney. "We'll get you all the way to
Scott has now got one hand on the steering-wheel and one hand on a newly lit joint. Is smoking dope a sin, I worry? A kind of gluttony, perhaps? But what the Hell. The next thing I know, I am standing at a Dutch service station in the rain.
I feel like I am going backwards. My day deteriorates into an endless cycle of slip roads, filling stations, junctions and gravelly verges. At a spaghetti junction beyond
Later I am treated to a series of rides with anonymous, gloomy men in jackets and ties, driving silent cars under black skies through dreary towns like
Here everything changes. Suddenly, I am on an autobahn, in a little foreign car surrounded by muscular German cars, flying tail-to-bumper with the joy and precision of fighter pilots in formation. Everywhere I look I see German cars, proud and happy to be in their own country where no one can get at them.
The Germans have one response to worries: solve them. Nothing will be easier than hitching all the way from
For a long time, the driver is silent, before he finally asks me whether
I am dropped off at Bahnhof Zoo, the centre of
Gloomy forests begin to crowd the road, pylons and pillars and poles and girders clog unkempt fields. I glimpse cobbled alleys and rusty fences. And look! Germans in uniform manning the border to
But an hour later, I am checking into a room in
It's not far to Hell from here. The next morning, I wake to tricklings and gushings and lashings and gurglings and drummings. Mere thunderstorms, I tell myself. Nothing to stop my progress. After attaching an umbrella to the strap of my bag, I stand by a road on the edge of town getting sprayed by Mercedes, BMWs and Audis. Eventually a Lada stops.
The driver is a thin man with dyed black hair who speaks not a word of English, German, or indeed Polish. In his back seat, I notice a beautiful blonde girl reading a book about Buddhism. But as I climb in to join her, she climbs out. She is nothing but a Satanic trick! I find myself cuddling up to a stinky, muzzled black dog instead.
We drive on, with a curious lack of purpose, past fruit trees, crows, black muddy lanes, allotments and pine forests. The dog farts. There seems to be grave indecision as to where we are going at all. Ahem, I say, pointing at my map, but the driver only shakes his head sadly.
A horse-drawn wagon trundles past; village chimneys smoke furiously although it is mid-July. The end of my journey? Almost. That night I settle for a town called Wladyslawowo, where hundreds of bedraggled teenagers are hugging sleeping bags in the main street. I walk to the beach to find it packed, at , with people wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas, sitting on benches, eating fried fish from cardboard plates and drinking beer from plastic cups. Is this where bad Mediterranean holidaymakers go after they die?
The next morning, the little fishing
In fact, Hel has golden sandy beaches and picturesque cottages. But I've got Dante in mind and am finding the day oddly humorous. Where, for example, is the tortured, naked spirit of Judas Iscariot? I turn to the doctor as he drops me off: you know there's an English word, hell... I begin to explain. But I can't quite spit the words out.
Funnily enough, no Hel resident gets the joke, when I try telling it. Instead, they smile politely. Only the Yugoslavian ex-sailor who squirts cream into iced coffees at Hel's waterfront bar seems to understand. Yes, he tells me. But this Hel only has one "l".
You're right, say I, taking my coffee. But he has got me confused. A fragrant breeze picks up off the sea and a summery sun is trying to come out. Can it possibly be that this isn't really Hell at all? That I have hitch-hiked all this way for nothing?
Surely not. Happy gulls squawk overhead. People are taking their coats off. I spoon myself a mouthful of cream and sugary foam and conclude: Hell is just not the bad place you sometimes think it has to be.
Going to Hel
Hitchhiking: Jeremy Atiyah paid £22 from Harwich to
Planes: the closest airport to Hel is
Buses: plenty of buses operate from various
Visas: these are no longer required for British passport holders visiting Hel.
Information: Polish National Tourist Office, Remo House,