The Rhododendrons Trail: Iłowa – Żagań

The town of Iłowa has always been beyond the margins of my ‘mental map of the region’ despite its geographical closeness to my home town. I’ve never been there, and have never had any desire to go there. Somehow something has always put me off. Last summer I was told about a Japanese garden in Iłowa, and learnt there was a walking route between the two towns. I didn’t have time to explore that then so it was left for another occasion. This happened this year.

On Friday morning I boarded a bus and 20 minutes later I got off in the centre of a surprisingly bigger town than I’d expected. My attention was immediately drawn by a very distinctive white building; as it turned out its wide gate was actually an entrance to a former palace and its park. I went through the gate and I faced a massive tall building partially hidden behind the trees; it was the palace, now hosting a local high school. In front of it there was a patch of parkland, but it wasn’t the famous one. I had to go round the school to enter a vast area of lawns, decorative trees, fountains and strange looking artefact. In a corner between the school and the park a Japanese garden was hiding. The whole place was a testimony tothe huge efforts that had been taken on to restore it to its former glory, previously neglected over the decades. There’s still quite a long way to go, but I’m sure that those responsible can achieve great results with their determination and love of the place.

My exploration led me to an odd building at the end of a long straight path. It turned out to be a bridge across the road below. Looking for an interesting composition to take a photo I actually found the beginning of the trail I was to follow; a sign painted on a tree was obvious. Luckily it happened just when I’d finished my exploration of the park, so I could hit the road instantly, and I did.

The trail ran along an old cobbled uneven road with little traffic. It went through a residential area for a little while, then the cobbles turned into tarmac, and the buildings into grassy fields with much fewer houses. The road was winding gently its way forward without any spectacular scenery or happenings. But despite walking on tarmac (not my favourite surface for walking) it was rather pleasant, mostly because there was very little traffic, and the weather was good, with the Sun shining and the sky blue. That was the case for many kilometres, all the way to the village of Konin Żagański and a couple of kilometres beyond. There the trail left the tarmac road and from there the rest of my walk was through the woodland.

That meant no traffic, not even a scarce one, a surface nicer to my feet, and some cover from the sun that had become too strong and too hot for my liking. Those changes aside the walk remained pretty uneventful, but still pleasant.

A few kilometres further on I was entering the little village of Żaganiec. An old lady behind a fence was staring at me so intensely that somehow I overlooked a trail sign with rather disastrous results. I followed the most obvious tarmac road in the direction of my finish line, only to find that the road ended on the bank of the river Czerna, where the remains of a destroyed bridge showed clearly I’d taken the wrong turn. I had to come back through the village, swallowing my pride when I met thesurprised looks of the locals. It turned out the trail counterintuitively went exactly the opposite direction for about a couple of hundred meters, then turned right into the woods and then ran through it all the way to the Museum of Allied Prisoners of War, where the trail ended.

The museum is located in the outskirts of the town of Żagań, so I still had quite a distance to cover in order to reach the town centre. One obvious route was along a very busy road. Another one led through the forest where the infamous PoWs camp Stalag Luft III (the Great Escape) had been located. I decided to take the latter as it was much nicer and quieter. About 15 minutes or so later I arrived at the spot where the famous escape took place. Recently a watchtower had been erected, and with bits of barbed-wire fence, the tunnel’s exit and entrance, and the tunnel marked on the ground it gave a pretty good view how audacious the whole enterprise had been. I wasn’t short of admiration for those who had carried out that plan, and paid with their lives.