With the certainty with which one only expects miracles, they rode off, wrote Countess Marion Dönhoff to her brother Dietrich. Two women, two horses, five days, 200 kilometers. From Allenstein, near the Dönhoffschen Gut Quittainen, to Steinort, the castle of the Lehndorff family, Marion and her cousin Sißi rode through East Prussia in September 1941. They crossed this vast, quiet country with its 2,700 lakes, which Dönhoff would leave just three and a half years later, fleeing the Russian army. “It is incredibly beautiful to trot on this sandy ground, the leaves rustle under your hooves – beech and oak alternate, and now and then there is a linden tree or the red shaft of a pine tree in between.”

82 years later, we are three women and four men who ride a total of 235 kilometers: through villages where elderberries, cornflowers and wild roses spring from the gardens around weather-beaten wooden houses, past storks’ nests, reed-covered lakes and through sparse birch forests. On old oak avenues, but also on new four-lane streets in the middle of nowhere, at the edge of which there is a lantern every five meters. “EU money,” says Tadeusz Żebrowski, 68, our riding guide.

It is his horses, sturdy Polish Malopolskas, that we sit on. We are between 50 and 79 years old and are looking for a landscape that was long thought lost and an idea of ​​the eventful history of an area that was part of East Prussia for centuries. Resistance fighters against Hitler came from the noble von Lehndorff families, to which Marion von Dönhoff indirectly belonged. In her book she describes this world of forests and lakes that was so ideal for her, but she already suspected on this ride that she would lose her home. Because soldiers and military transports met the two women again and again on the way.

It is September 1941, the war is on all borders. Dönhoff, 31, writes: “You’re actually always saying goodbye, not just to people – to everything you love…” About the last confirmation in the village church in Quittainen it says: “I suddenly realized that none of these boys, like but all their fathers would stand before this altar again and that it would be the fate of most little girls to remain alone.”

The villages of Masuria now have Polish names, but the landscape has remained, the forests, the heather, the sandy paths. We hear the cries of the cranes flying overhead, smell the withered leaves thrown up by our horses’ hooves. It’s strange to repeat the ride at a time when fear of our Russian neighbors is once again rampant, when men are building bunkers under their houses, when Ukrainian refugees are working in the hotels we stay in and on the menus “Ukrainian pierogi” are now available in restaurants.

The night before we start, we stay in an old forester’s house in Kruklanki. All the steaming bowls barely fit on the long wooden table. This is how it will be every evening from now on. On this journey we eat our way through Masurian cuisine, sometimes prepared by sisters in a small accommodation, sometimes by a former manager seeking his fortune on a lonely farm, sometimes by a hotel chef. Dumplings, goulash soup, cabbage wraps, pickled beets, pierogi filled with sauerkraut and mushrooms and, for dessert, wild strawberries or multi-tiered cakes.

Greylag geese are gathering in the fields to fly south when we reach Tadeusz’s farm on the first morning. He worked in Germany and at some point realized that what he really loved were horses and riding through the forests in his homeland. And because on these tours many villagers talked about the countess on her fat brown horse and her cousin on the light-footed fox, because these two women were so omnipresent even after such a long time, he got the book and began to explore the old paths and places research.

Some things had changed. Sand had turned into asphalt, fields into dark spruce forests, foresters’ houses where they slept had fallen into disrepair, clearings had become industrial areas. Nevertheless, we come close to the Countess’ longing place on the way. For us it’s not about the accuracy of the path, but about the often untouched landscape. Even today, riders can gallop along miles of soft sandy paths.

Led by Tadeusz’s 32-year-old daughter Agata, we get the horses ready after a quick breakfast. Tadeusz drives ahead with his luggage to the next accommodation. “Remember, Masurian kilometers can be long,” he shouts, “you have to ride fast, otherwise it will be dark before you get there.”

We sit on our horses for between six and nine hours every day. Conversations between yesterday’s strangers quickly become personal and close. In the evening we sit with a beer before showering, a sweaty community that might never have met like that in our lives at home. A physicist, a biologist from the Max Planck Institute, an IT service provider, a German scholar, an engineer. One with a leather hat, jeans, a scarf and the same T-shirt, the other in the perfect riding catalog outfit with a wax coat and polished ankle boots. For us there is only the landscape, the horse’s movements, conversations and silence, nothing to get our thoughts caught up in.

Another day, Tadeusz stands excitedly at a fork in the forest and points between the trees. “Here,” he calls, “this is exactly the route that Marion and Sissi took.” Over the years, the two women have become first names for him and he refers to them like family members. The place he means is a grassy headland on the banks of the Ruciane, the Lower Lake. We let the horses run free while we lie on our backs under the bright green canopy of birch trees, eating bread and sliced ​​venison sausages.

One of the areas we ride through is the Puszcza Piska, the Johannisburg Heath, one of the largest forest areas in Poland. It is popular with mushroom pickers; there are almost 100 edible varieties here. We can’t just enter these forests on a horse, says Tadeusz: “Polish environmental protection,” and he raises his hands to the sky in mourning. “But horses are nature. You can’t get more nature than that!” Many forestry authorities had to give their consent for us to ride through their forest, and so Tadeusz brought a bunch of pieces of paper with stamps. But no one wants to see these pieces of paper.

Our horses sleep every night in a nearby meadow, sometimes we can see them from our bedroom window rolling and snorting. “It is such a blissful feeling to ride through the autumnal countryside, you feel very light and exhilarated, far from all the limitations of your home and the worries of everyday life,” wrote Marion von Dönhoff. And in fact, the longer we ride, the further away everything that is piling up at home in terms of tasks and worries and life becomes. We stop under pear trees, pick juicy pears and let the horses taste them. In the morning the autumn mist hovers over the meadows, and when the day warms and the sky turns blue, there is the smell of roadside apples and plums.

An old woman hands us mirabelle plums over the fence, dogs walk alongside us along the village streets. A moose steps out of the bushes and looks at us. We stand still, the horses become restless, then he turns off into the dense greenery. We gallop across harvested fields and wade through a lazy river. In the evening we arrive at Sniardwy, the Spirdingsee, where Marion von Dönhoff also spent the night. Here it is exactly as she describes: “Beautiful old buildings, a small manor house on a headland that protrudes far into the lake. I have never seen anything similarly enchanted in East Prussia.”

Our penultimate accommodation is in the middle of meadows in Małszewo. It is an old half-timbered forester’s house that a former television star and real estate mogul from Warsaw had restored. We are the only guests and probably his last, he says. He wants to close his guesthouse soon, time for something new. Our saddle blankets lie wet with sweat over the wooden railing of a large balcony and dry in the autumn sun. At night the deer circle the house, standing on the hill behind our rooms in the light of the full moon and roaring.

The countess’s book is a bit worn after the days in the saddlebag. Someone left it on the balcony veranda overnight, it was opened: “We ride slowly north in the half-cooled sunshine of the afternoon, often without a path, either directly by the water or through the high stands that lead to the often steep slope the shore. The sun turns the pine trunks glowing red and lets the beech leaves shine in all shades from bright gold to deep copper. Below lies the lake, surrounded by a fringe of light yellow reeds. Lord God, how beautiful this world is – could be… “

When the Russian army approached in 1945, Countess Marion Dönhoff fled from Quittainen to Westphalia on her Trakehner Alarich. She never sat on a horse again after that.

Folwark Łuknajno:The manor house from 1918 is located on a lake, the rooms are furnished in a country house style. Very good regional cuisine. Double/F from 75 euros, Mikołajki, Łuknajno 1, Tel. 48/874 21 68 62

Hotel Marina ClubThis beautiful hotel with a garden, wellness and its own beach is located on a peninsula in Lake Jezioro Wulpińskie near Olsztyn. Kayaks and boats can be rented. Double/F from 140 euros, Olsztyn, Siła 100, Tel. 48/895 23 87 97

BonoboIf you’re looking for something vegan in addition to the often meat-heavy Masurian cuisine, you’ll find delicious soups and a particularly good chocolate cake here. Olsztyn, 1 Maja 4, Tel. 48/737 18 95 57

Oberża Pod PsemThis historic wooden house is located in a three-farm village in the middle of the Johannisburg Heath. Must try: the cheeses and the smoked pork and game ham. Kadzidłowo, Kadzidłowo 1, Tel. 48/874 25 74 74

Dönhoff Trail Riding tours with Tadeusz Żebrowski can be booked at www.pferdreiter.de.

Boat toursWith its marina, Nikolaiken is the most important water sports center in the region. Numerous ship and boat tours across the lakes start from the promenade.

Lehndorff’s Hunting LodgeThe building in need of renovation was dismantled into its individual parts in 2005 and rebuilt true to the original in the town of Gałkowo. Guesthouse, restaurant and a small Marion Countess Dönhoff Museum in one. Ruciane-Nida, Gałkowo 46