Friday, 28 August 2015

All aboard the gold train rush

What a story! This has got everything! Looted Nazi gold, a deathbed confession, an armoured train in a secret tunnel, lost for 70 years - believed to be just a myth - and now looking more and more likely with each passing day. No wonder the world's media are hyping up the story that two treasure-hunters claim to have found the mythical gold train somewhere under Wałbrzych. Click here for BBC, here for Daily Telegraph, here for Daily Mail, here for Guardian and here for Independent coverage. [Incidentally, comparing the stories is an interesting exercise in itself for Britain-watchers.]

The Polish media are somewhat less excited. There have been so many false alarms in the past, and now the story is in the hands of the public administration, where time passes at a far slower rate than that demanded by TV news, there's a more realistic wait-and-see attitude among Polish editors. So while the gold train story also made the evening news today on TVN, it was the second-from-last item.

Let's get to the meat of the story then. Most Poles will have heard about the secret mines dug for the Nazis by slave labourers in the Góry Sowie ('Owl Mountains'). The tale (Projekt Riese) is shrouded in mystery, as there's no historical evidence as to why the Nazis wanted to burrow under these mountains. Was it to be a well-protected bastion for Hitler? Or factories for secret weapons? Or just conventional weapons? Or home to the Nazi nuclear programme? Were these tunnels to be used to hide looted gold and artwork?

Do take a look at the Wikipedia Projekt Riese article, as it gives an idea of the massive scale of the unfinished project, which was initiated in late 1943. Several of the complexes have been opened to the public, and some of the photos from the caverns are mind-boggling. It is quite understandable why myths should have arisen about a train full of looted gold. The Projekt Riese website has a whole section about the myths - one of which is indeed about this particular train that has captured the world's headlines this week.

Part of the Projekt Riese Rzeczka Complex. Photo: Wikipedia - author Przykuta

OK, so now that the hands of the deputy culture minister are on this affair, we can expect weeks, months, of cautious umming and ahhing, prevarication, legal reasons why the Polish state must proceed with the hunt at a snail's pace ('possible presence of chemical weapons, land-mines, booby traps etc'; budgets, departmental responsibilities - the army or the culture ministry, the local authorities or central government). The story will slide off the front pages while the powers that be determine who does what and when.

Meanwhile, scores of treasure hunters will descend upon south-west Poland armed with detection equipment of varying sensitivity. It is likely that this independent pressure will keep the Polish State on its toes.

Where is it? Open Google Earth or Google Maps, and look at the railway line running north of Wałbrzych Szczawienko station. The trained eye can see the remnants of a spur heading towards Książ Castle, situated on a hill. Where did that railway spur end? Looks like it buried itself into the hillside. Or is the tunnel somewhere off the main line between Wrocław and Wałbrzych? Or is that a false scent? All has echoes of a railway story by the Rev. W. Audry, Britain's greatest mystical philosopher... Shades of Duke the Lost Engine, or Henry getting walled into a tunnel.

So let's say that Piotr Zuchowski, deputy culture minister, is right, and the radar imaging published today is indeed an armoured train carrying vast amounts of gold and other treasures. Then what? The two treasure hunters who made the announcement have claimed 10% for themselves. Fine - the rightful rewards of their initiative. We may be talking billions of euros in total. Who does it belong to? This will take many long years, and international tribunals, to sort out. How much should return to the families of Nazi victims, how much to states? We shall wait and see.

Apart from the treasure itself, it will be a huge boost to Poland's tourism industry. As I've long posited, Poland's tourist attractions are eclectic and niche. From heritage railways to equestrianism, from ornithology to military history, from kiteboarding to mountain biking, Poland is not a mainstream destination that pulls in the sun-seeking masses. Rather it is for legions of hobbyists of all sorts - people with more imagination - and typically spending cash - than the typical fortnight-in-Majorca types.

But sewing together all of Poland's vast tourist attractions into one package is nigh impossible. What can be done is to promote these multifarious draws directly to enthusiast communities around the world. Why not, for example, advertise Poland as a destination for bird-watching holidays directly to members (more than a million) of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds?

Poland's tourist attractions are scarcely known among well-informed Poles, let alone foreigners. The existence of truly top-notch wine producers here was entirely unknown to me until my daughter tasted a remarkable wine, brought some home, and prompted me to travel 1,100km across Poland and back to visit the vineyard and buy a few bottles.

The story of the gold train is symbolic of how many undiscovered treasures there are waiting to bring delight to the discerning tourist.

[Click here for update 29.08.2015]

This time last year:
A state built on lies

This time two years ago:
Asphalt for (some of) ul. Poloneza

This time three years ago:
Dominicans at large, Służew

This time five years ago:
Late summer moods, Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
The next one hundred years

This time seven years ago:
"What do we want? Early retirement!
When do we want it? NOW!"

This time eight years ago:
Twilight of Warsaw's greenhouse economy

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