Friday, May 22, 2015

More impressions of Poland

In the Market Square, Gliwice
The evening we arrived in Gliwice, we couldn't find a bus to take us the last stretch to the village where we were staying,Gliwice-Łabędy, so we took a taxi instead. It was a very pricey compared to public transport, but at least it dropped us at the door of the hotel. Actually, to call it a hotel is a slight misnomer; it was really a kind of dormitory for travellers. There was no restaurant, no room service, no WiFi in our room and the only extra was a coffee machine in reception that broke down on day 2. Never mind, it was fine: clean and functional.

We opened the window, which like most of those in Poland these days, was heavily double-glazed, and were met by an unlikely blast of what sounded like local music from the great outdoors. A street party? A local festival perhaps? After all, it was the first of May, and given Poland's eastern European and communist history, this sounded probable. As we were far from the city lights, we decided to don walking shoes and go out looking. What we found was indeed a street party with plenty of local people enjoying the night air. Children ran around (it was well after 10:00pm) and dogs did doggy things in amongst the tables and benches. Barbecued food was on sale at the absurdly cheap price of 1 zloty a piece (about 25 euro cents) and at one of the stalls, there was beer available in plastic cups. I'm guessing if you wanted vodka (traditional, you understand) you brought your own as the bar wasn't selling alcohol. The local music had changed by now to the Polish version of hip hop or Trance, so we decided we'd seen our bit of local colour for the evening and wandered off in search of the canal.

I should mention that the reason we were staying in Gliwice-Łabędy was to attend the celebrations marking the opening of a new marina. Koos had contacts at the old one there and we'd been told there would be festivities over the weekend. As it happened we never found it, but on the first night, we were still optimistic. We walked through the dark streets, which were only occasionally lit by street lamps. There were other people out walking too, but it was quiet and intensely peaceful.

Crossing over the main road and then into the old station yard, I felt myself entering a Koos photo. This was the atmosphere of so many of his night time images - the mist hung over the rail tracks; solitary lights spread pools of brightness that emphasised the still, lonely magic of the scene. The crumbling station house and signal box emerged re-painted from the same sodium palette, instead of their normal colours. And the hush, the peace, it was almost tangible.

Leaving the yard with a sigh, we crossed over the level crossing, walked under the viaduct of a second track and within seconds found ourselves on the bridge over the canal; and not only this, there was a double lock as well, one of which was undergoing repairs. In the evening of course, all was still deserted, but we couldn't believe our luck. To be staying so close to our own kind of heaven: railways, canals, level crossings and locks all in one place! I know, I know. The 'odd couple' is what we are, but this has long been our idea of the perfect place to live. We walked back through the now empty streets to the hotel, refreshed and very happy we'd arrived in this place.

The next morning, the misty magic had dispersed and everything was bright and sunny; the station yard was busy and at the back we discovered a thriving small café and flower shop, as well as a delightful antique store. This was a lovely place to poke around as it was crammed with furniture and bric-a-brac. In fact, it was more like a cheerfully disorganised charity shop for old stuff than a real antique store. It also had a fantastic mural of a train bursting through the wall (see photo below).

People were coming and going and the workers who were now busy on the lock were shouting noisily to each other as builders so often do. The whole atmosphere was lively with Saturday morning traffic and normal life. There was a vibrancy to it all, which was great; however, it was so different from our evening walk, I could barely believe it was the same place.

Thriving flower shop and cafe
Antique shop with its gorgeous mural
As we looked along the canal on the other side of the bridge, we saw a small flotilla of pleasure boats. Surmising that this was the 'fleet' going to its new harbour home, we followed the canal towpath for miles in the hopes of finding the new marina. We never got there as after what turned out to be six kilometres, we decided we'd had enough. The way was beautiful though and the tree lined canal a picture of tranquillity. On our other side, there was a huge lake. At one point, we stopped to look at a site where some interesting looking dredgers were parked - wonderful photo material - but a man approached us, waving and shouting. Clearly were were not supposed to be interested in these things and absolutely not to take 'fotografia'. This is one area that the Poles seem to be rather sensitive about. Normal tourist photography is fine but they are very suspicious of any interest in machinery installations  or official buildings - perhaps a reference to their relatively recent soviet influenced past.

At the end of the path, we found a conveniently placed bus (actually Koos knew it would be there), which took us to Pyskowice, a delightful town north west of Gliwice where we had excellent coffee served by very friendly staff in a café looking out on the sunlit main square (sorry - long sentence unavoidable). If you google Pyskowice, you can see images of how charming it is!

From there, another bus took us Gliwice itself.

A lovely walk along the canal
Peace and tranquillity

Gliwice is a jewel of a town. At the moment, its outskirts are in upheaval as they are building a large arterial road through it, but the centre remains untouched by this mayhem. It is really a gorgeous place with architecture showing quite a strong German and even Flemish influence. We wandered round, enjoying the scene and taking photos. The church too was spectacular: unbelievably ornate with rich carvings and paintings. There had obviously been a wedding earlier, as it was decked in flowers and hanging ribbons that gave the central aisle a very festive air.

Marke square Gliwice

The gorgeously ornate church in Gliwice

By this time, we were pretty tired, so we walked slowly back to the bus stop and headed on a now familiar route back to Gliwice-Łabędy. Feeling positively Polish as we clung to the seats and smiled at our fellow travellers, it already felt like going 'home' and my affection for the area was growing. Getting off the bus, we walked to the Biedronka supermarket, which was luckily by the station, found ourselves some food for supper and headed back to our no frills hotel. Day one was over and we were very content.

Hotel in the Burbs

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Poland - a country in a state of flux

On Friday 1 May, we arrived in Poland at Katowice airport, a small, but bustling terminal thirty one kilometres from the city itself. It was dull and drizzly that day, but it was the start of a fascinating five day adventure during which I experienced so many impressions it's still hard to absorb them all.

One of the regions numerous charming old trams

I've always pictured Poland as being cold and grey, decrepit and forbidding; an image built up from memories of war films and photos, all of which seem to depict the country in winter for some reason. True, Koos has often been there in winter too, so this impression was confirmed by his snowy photos of trams at dusk, dark streets slick with rain and people wrapped like well-padded immersion heaters.  I really didn't know what to expect except somewhere rather bleak, and our arrival to grey, damp and cool conditions threatened to support these ideas. But not for long - luckily!

The following days were mostly sunny and warm and our wonderful Rambler 5 day public transport tickets took us by tram and bus over an incredible distance - all for a grand outlay of just 10 euros each. We did try the train to Krakow, but even a snail would have got there faster, so we came back by bus instead. I asked Koos why we didn't buy return tickets on the train. Now I know. They don't sell them…probably because one way is enough for anyone's patience!

One of my favourite things:  deserted stations. This one has
brand new platforms but the station buildings
are quite derelict

Poland is a country in transition. I loved its beautiful towns - Gliwice, Bytom and (of course) Krakow, but also the areas of crumbling decay, all of which are destined to be improved and renovated. There is a huge amount of building going on; however, at the moment it all seems a bit haphazard. Just as an example, all the railway platforms are brand new, but many of the stations themselves are dilapidated in the extreme. 

Old or new rails - I'm not sure which!

The station cat: she was so sweet I wanted to take her home
Another draw was the old mining areas and the quiet suburbs around them where most people have their own charming, informal gardens full of flowering thorn trees.

A working mine outside Zabrze
Then of course there are the waterways. The Gliwice Canal ran just behind the station of Gliwice łabędy where we were staying. It was first on our list of places to visit as we'd intended to go to a festival in the marina there. We never quite made it and saw the boats disappearing off down the canal. After a 6km walk, we gave up trying to catch up with them, but didn't really mind as the peace of the tow path was soul food enough.

You'll never keep me from the water for long. This
is the Gliwice Canal seen on our first day

Old industry seen from the Gliwice Canal
The Polish people we met were helpful, kind and welcoming in the nicest possible way. They appeared quite reserved, until contact was made, but then the warmth of their interaction seemed very genuine. Having said that, we were helped quite spontaneously on several occasions when we couldn't figure things out, and that was lovely. I enjoyed every encounter we made.

There is so much to tell, I can't do it all in one post -  so I'll save the rest for another post or two, but I'll finish with a photo of Gliwice town square, one of the most beautiful I've seen in a long time.

Gliwice town centre. I liked it even more than Krakow