Poland

Poznań, Poland

Following 4 successful trips to Poland I have recently been struck by a Pavlovian feeling that no matter how many times I return I will be delivered another conveyor belt of beautiful town squares, beer halls and breweries, surprisingly flash public infrastructure and friendly locals. It was for this reason, and going off several recommendations that I travelled to Poznan in western Poland, one of the larger cities and due to its location on the main trainline east of Berlin, a potentially interesting crossroads from central into Eastern Europe.

The city itself had a lot to live up to after visiting Gdansk, Krakow, Lublin and Wroclaw in turn, the latter two being readable on this blog, with their being surprisingly rewarding places to visit. A cursory glance suggested the same  format would be likely in Poznan – fine by me!

We arrived into the stare miasto after midnight by taxi, and discovered fairly quickly the nightlife Poznan has gained a reputation for. In Wroclaw a group of girls my age urged me to visit Poznan to experience it. It’s the first time I’ve been chauffeured behind two police vans to my hostel while all around drunken revellers were enjoying the evening to a bombastic degree. The atmosphere in such a late hour was dramatic, but in fairness familiar to myself, a British person, having been out in the likes of Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle plenty a time.

After depositing our bags we headed for some food and found ourselves at a late night pub Za Kulisami. I would recommend disregarding the out of date and rather stuffy reviews – this is definitely one of the best places to go for a post-uni crowd type drink. Very atmospheric, buzzing even, and the general hubbub you get in a good local. Just like many a good pub there were obvious bits of banter going on between the regulars and the bar staff, and a friendly welcoming feel overall. I got talking to one of the bar staff on our way out and again, you can never be too surprised in Poland by the fluent English and genuine treatment as equals rather than interlopers (with the obvious caveat of my being a white Northern European man). Heading to bed at 4am, it was clear already a lot of the holiday was going to be spent in the pub, but not with any sense of regret!

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Fortunately we were able to get up and about the following day to take in the few hours of sunshine afforded to us, as autumn was well underway. Our hostel position was about 100m away from the main event in Poznan, Stary Rynek. This city square had been very carefully reconstructed for decades and it is sizeable and impressive enough to make a dent, even in the brain of someone who has experienced many central European town squares. There is a blotch in the centre where a cuboid modernist building sits adjacent to the usual gabled burgher houses and some particularly impressive painted portico burgher houses next to the town hall. Although this shitty building houses a regional museum, and is therefore useful, I would personally have preferred the extra space so as to greater emphasize the grand scale of the central square.

There are several other streets going off from it that are worth a wander down, although the centre is on a comparatively small scale akin to Bratislava or Brno. The Stary Rynek never managed to muster the busy vital atmosphere of Wroclaw or Krakow sadly, although still manages the girls sporting neon umbrellas on street corners  trying to lure you into their various dens of ignominy. They really don’t take no for an answer, which is rather ironic given the likely flip-side of the coin most likely happening inside.

So why go then?

Well, although stare miasto never felt like quite as important as the above two, it did have its moments. The square is supremely atmospheric on a misty evening and taking a stroll around at night really provided a flavour of the exotic. Sometimes quieter moments and just taking a scene in for a moment can help emphasize that a bit more. Similarly, Poznan is not all that far removed from the other options at hand. It has a Cathedral Island just like Wroclaw, a brewery with a very good tour, the famous Lech Poznan football team (only £11 a ticket), and a steam train service from the central station (not currently working but back on in December). It also has goats as an emblem, as I discovered once evening double-taking the sight of a billy goat having a chill out by the steps of a townhouse! This will easily take up a long weekend, not accounting for the focus the city has on nightlife.

What about the nightlife?

As anyone living in a provincial city knows, sometimes its cultural sights can only sustain you for so long. Poznan is one of those cities which seems to rely on, even sustain itself via the evening’s entertainments. There are so many bars as to be many times surplus to your requirements, and over a dozen or so that seriously demand attention. Sadly we couldn’t visit that many, but I would strongly recommend Za Kulisami, (as reasoned above), the dark red communist themed Proletaryat where it struck me I have the prospect, being bald, of emulating the visage of a great thinker, and Piwna Stopa, the most homely and welcoming of craft ale bars possibly in Poland full stop. Given the enormous bloom of craft ale since 2014, there are great things coming along across Poland and this pub shows craft ale isn’t all about stark industrial decor and hard furniture, but good service, roaring fire, upholstered seating. On a Friday and Saturday especially, you will have no difficulty finding a tolerable place serving drinks right up until 8 in the morning, although quite WHY you would want that, is another matter.

As with recent posts, Polish craft ale is coming on leaps and bounds, and autumn was a good excuse to try the ever increasing number of dark ales, schwarzbiers, porters and stouts which were almost always good or excellent.

And the food?

There’s nothing of overwhelming excitement although all places we went to delivered hearty, tasty food. As is increasingly the case, Poland are undergoing the sort of food enlightenment Britain went through in the 1990s, therefore there is a glut of new vegetarian/sushi places and world cuisine, reflecting that, similar to the UK, their own cuisine veers towards stodgy wintery food and is lacking in spice. Anyway, for the time of year that can be great, and can certainly recommend the timber stylings and hearty fare of Wiejscie Jadlo, likewise Oberza Pod Dzwonkiem, both of which killed the already outdated, should-be-dead stereotype that Eastern European service isn’t up to scratch. In my opinion that has been long gone. This is a country where the English language is inculcated in any human able to stand up, and in a city like Poznan which doesn’t receive as many English tourists, there are many people very keen to try out their underused skills. English tourists are the undoubted primary benefits of this: you should not miss out.

And also…

It is worth pointing out visiting in October means we missed out on the probable café culture in the main square and the activities available near Lake Malta, an artificial lake famous for its international rowing regattas, a dry ski slope, steam train, thermal spa and generally enough going on around it to take up a couple of days all on its own. Poznan also signs up to the city bike scheme which is a great way to get around a flat and quite easy to navigate city. It’s a pity really the weather and season denied us nearly all of that!

Is this place a priority?

It depends how your wanderlust is coming along. Wizz Air still provide very cheap flights and there are twin private rooms in hostels going for £10.00 a night that are perfectly serviceable. This cuts through notions of priority and more or less demands your attention. The pound might be tanking but this is offset by Poznan being an especially cheap Polish city – there are still places serving good beers for 6zl (£1.25 at the time of writing). If you enjoy seeking out good bars and still enjoy the chilly thrill of a Polish rynek, Poznan is definitely in the top three or four places you should seek out, which means in fairness, it is really good.

By my reckoning though (and limited to cities I have actually visited):

  1. Krakow
  2. Gdansk
  3. Wroclaw
  4. Lublin
  5. Poznan

This factors in that Poznan didn’t quite have the breadth of impressive architecture or the prettiness overall of the cities above it. Poznan might claw its way up to 3 or 4 in the summer with the various activities it had going for it which are notable and will most likely fill your time up well. Might be worth bearing in mind when you plan your inevitable visit!

Wrocław, Poland

How can the fourth largest city in Poland be undiscovered?

Good question. A really good question. Indeed, I should turn that question around and pose that to you. How is this place undiscovered? Why does it register little more than a flicker or a blank stare? It is somewhat mind-boggling to think of all the hidden gems on Earth, but even more so when they are ‘hidden’ in the form of a sizeable city in the centre of an extremely well connected area of central Europe. Somewhere between the urban playground of Warsaw, historical sights of Krakow and port solidarity of Gdansk this place slips through the net. Perhaps most of Poland hasn’t settled sufficiently on westerners radars just yet. This was something I touched on in a previous article on the lovely (and barely known about) city of Lublin. You have a situation where the British can reel off a dozen small towns each in France and Italy, even Germany but not register a major Polish city as notable, or of potential interest.

When’s the last time you heard a British person remark “Oh I was in Wrocław last week…”? Precisely. It’s just not really there, somehow. Yet there’s no reason at all cities such as Lyon, Frankfurt, Malmo, Rotterdam, Oslo should receive the tourists they do in comparison to Wroclaw. It remains extremely easy to get to, less than two hours by plane, is packed full of fluent friendly English speakers, has an already saturated craft ale scene, and boasts a varied but equally enjoyable series of sights and activities that will fill a long weekend comfortably. Is it pleasing to the eye, is it nourishing, culturally and historically? Absolutely yes.

Firstly, you’ll need to say it like “Vrots-wav” – very important, this. W is v, c is ‘ts’, and that dodgy ł character is more like a ‘wuh’ sound, sometimes with the hint of a l still lingering in there somewhere. Vrotswav. Go fetch a Polish person for the finer tuning.

Why is it so important I go here above Krakow?

This isn’t about me telling you to avoid places that are of obvious historical interest. If you want to head to Krakow then believe me, that’s a great decision you’ve made. Go! But once a person has been to Krakow, or Warsaw, or Gdansk, I must impress on you Poland doesn’t stop there and neither should you.

I was persuaded here by a succession of Polish people urging me to visit, which piqued my interest, as aside of the anticipated beauty of the Rynek I didn’t know much about the place, or why I ought to visit. Going only on word of mouth at the time, I was naturally quite skeptical. Then, after some idle digging I discovered via google streetview a network of victorian wrought iron bridges, islands, waterways and parkland, each with its own views and angles of the town. I discovered Ostrów Tumski and its quiet cobbled old town that had eluded my attention. I discovered the Witches Bridge a vertigo-inducing pathway linking the top of two church towers. I discovered a 360-degree painting on a mind-bogglingly epic scale. I discovered a monumental UNESCO World Heritage site I had never heard of, with a huge park, fountain display and Japanese Garden.

Sounds alright actually.

Mmhmm. Well then throw in not one but 3 breweries located not just in the city centre but on the Rynek itself, the best of the three being the Germanic (Wroclaw has been in German control for long periods, and it shows) and excellent Spiż (link plays audio) , where you can sit outside admiring the view of the Ratusz, not to mention the beautiful locals, or go down to the basement and enjoy the good cheer and classic central European cellar atmosphere. It’s the number one destination in the city, so for some locals quite passé, but there is a residual fondness for it. The beers come in a selection of Germanic and central European styles. All the ones I tried were either good or very good.

What else?

You see that little gnome above? Jesus wept. Yes, these bastards are everywhere, keeping the children entertained and some of the more inane adults too. Every city needs a thing I suppose, unfortunately Wroclaw’s is gnomes. This means postcards and souvenirs are unreasonably gnome-centric.

Moving on to far cooler matters now, you see that exciting night photo above – this is a shot from Neon Side, a must see bar/art gallery nestling in an alleyway off Ruska ulice. In the 70s and 80s the government installed neons across Poland to brighten up what were some pretty grey and depressing districts. Spin on to the 90s and these neons became attached to the old regime, hated, neglected and torn down, as if to prove socialists didn’t have the final say on cultural vandalism. Thankfully some people with common sense preserved these and after some careful curation, these have landed in the one venue. The street is like stepping into a sandbox version of Blade Runner, and anyone with an interest in vintage/retro design and logos will find it a must see. The bar itself isn’t bad either, with kind of a disused New York apartment feel.

In addition to Neon Side there are a number of very good bars on offer. These tend to fall into two camps – either multi-tap craft keg pubs selling the cheapest ‘craft ale’ anywhere in the world, (two of which are brewed in Wroclaw itself) – ZUP being a great example, or retro atmospheric bars with the focus on either Soviet or vintage/antiquey feel such as Mleczarnia. Some even combine the two such as the excellent well-rounded Graciarnia. There are another dozen like this. Expect to pay 7zl for a standard Polish lager and up to 13-15 for a strong hoppy IPA brewed by a Polish or Czech craft brewery.

Wroclaw has a free city bike scheme which is great because it’s such a perfect city size wize to traverse by bike. Although the traffic light system in Poland is irritatingly, glacially slow, twinned with police actually enforcing jaywalking laws (impatient British people will find the endless waiting intolerable to an almost reflexive level), there is plenty of park land around the stare miasto meaning smooth cycling around. The city is also more or less flat making it appropriate for any standard of cyclist. Download the nextbike app, pay 2 quid and supply card details, and they text you a password. Input the password at the bike dock and type in the number of the bike you want, and hey presto! It’s free for up to 20 minutes, and only 4 zloty per hour after that, less than a pound a time. You will likely not need it for hours as there are stations dotted about the city everywhere, and your app will tell you where they are.

Aren’t you forgetting the rows and rows of grim relentless towerblocks?

I am yes, but I didn’t think you wanted to visit those specifically. As with every Polish city, the residential areas are largely comprised of towerblock living, some of which are quite spruced and well-maintained, others are simply grim and down at heel. Some of the cheaper accommodation in Wroclaw is based in this district on the edge of the old town. Also, even in the centre itself there is the odd eyesore inexplicably sticking out amidst the delightful burgher houses and painted facades. But this is just how it is – ever been to Barcelona? It’s the same there. Taken the Docklands Light Railway in London? Yep, getting the picture? Big cities need to build upwards to house everyone, and unfortunately the last 100 years has been characterised invariably by countries doing that really badly. So, have I tidied up the last flickering remnants of doubt? Packed your toothbrush?

Go on then.

I knew I’d persuaded you. Plenty of attractions and scenic areas, idiosyncratic features, friendly locals, a strong sense of history and cultural positioning, and great nightlife. Go to Wroclaw, you won’t regret it!

Lublin, Poland

North east of Kraków and south of Warsaw lies Lublin, a hill-top renaissance-era town. As you arrive into town from the airport along the dual carriageway, the towers and spires of the stare miasto appear unexpectedly and suddenly,  rising above the brightly painted tower blocks that ring the outskirts. I can’t vouch for this effect in all weather conditions but on my arrival the silhouette of the city was shrouded in misty sunshine in such an otherworldly way it sent shivers down my spine. A great early disposition.

The autobus station drop-off is just outside the old town. This one was a typically dilapidated affair that looked as though it hadn’t had a penny spent on it since the Soviets had cleared off. From the bus station you ascend through parkland towards Lublin Castle, Zamek Lubelskie, an incongruously styled building with white painted stone facade, half-ornamental, half-fortified that reminded me more of something you’d expect to find out East somewhere like Samarkand than catholic Poland. Within the castle there is a much more classically-medieval cylindrical brick tower with a lookout over the old town – this is unmissable and very cheap. The two structures sit quite oddly with each other like a lighthouse in a play-pen but nevertheless it is quite a sight.

As you reach the front of the castle a path bridging the castle hill takes you towards the old town gate.

What’s the appeal?

Any fans of preserved old towns and medieval centres will get some enjoyment from Lublin, which not only has that preserved core but its hilltop situation inevitably lends it a further charm and visual pleasure. The old town is small, similar to Bratislava’s in size but the buildings themselves have a unique architectural style known as ‘Lublin Renaissance’. I don’t profess to be an expert but these 4/5 story city buildings have painted facades with detailed patterns. The old town is being restored carefully but in such a way that pays testament to the history passed rather than turning it into a sterile Disneyland.

In addition to the centre itself there is a pleasant main shopping promenade, park land and some generally interesting and typically Polish streets west of the old town. These aren’t necessarily blockbuster impressive but anyone interested in Soviet-era and pre-Soviet era can see traces of the history in some impressive town houses and the occasional mansion, and it’s nice just to take half an hour to stroll around them.

Beer! Craft ale in Poland has taken off in a big way, and even a provincial city like Lublin is getting in on the act. The university city and lively social scene means there is quite a lot going on. There are different types of place you can go – U Fotografa is a true craft ale pub with comfy seats and vintage cameras swivelling in recessed niches on the wall – and the regulars by the bar will make you most welcome – they are dying to test their English on someone, and be shocked into amazement you are there! I went there every night and had a great time each time. Pad Bar is a new concept combining craft ale, games rooms and Pub Quizzes, which as an Englishman really made me smile. Outside of the craft scene you have micro-breweries, brasseries if you like, and Lublin centre has Grodzka 15 which will do you a degustation of their range, all pleasant, but not exceptional. Lublin brews one of Poland’s most popular brews, Perła . Their brewery tap is a short walk from the old town, and very smart indeed. The beer itself is a classic premium Polish lager, along the cheaper end of the market. They also do typical Polish styles -dark, wheat and honey beers. Finally I will mention Swiety Michal, a terrific pub with a roaring fire who have their own beer (brewed elsewhere and re-badged), a delicious semi-dark style like a brown ale. The pub also does pizzas using Lublin’s own bread cebularz, an unleavened puffy, doughy effort that works surprisingly well as a pizza base.

Extra-curricular?

The haunting and serene Majdanek concentration camp. A short bus ride from town, the full extent of the site remains, however the vast majority of the barracks and outhouses have been removed. Nevertheless, the enormous ugly monument to martydom and oppression will be the first thing you notice on arrival. Drop by the visitor centre for further info and a very cheap guidebook to help place the site in context. It will take a good 2 hours to go around and bring an umbrella if it looks like it’s going to rain, as there are vast expanses with no cover. The most intense experience of the journey is visiting the gas chambers, small enclosed unlit concrete enclosures which twinned with the knowledge of what went on there, feel like tombs. It feels like being defiled even standing near it.

In terms of a visiting experience I would say it was extremely well done, striking the right balance tonally, providing useful and interesting information, a good but not overwhelming degree of personal anecdotes and a range of exhibits to see to help understand and place things into context. It is, in essence free, which makes all this the more remarkable. If you have the time (I didn’t) walk up to the enormous mausoleum at the far end, which is a structure very much of its era. The quiet fields, and the rooks cawing make this a sombre, powerful experience but one which you can take a lot from and understand how this treatment towards the Jews and the Polish bolstered their identity rather than destroying it.

Additional: Day trips to the wonderful small town Kazimierz Dolny (two castles, renaissance central square, river) and Zamosc (a UNESCO inscribed old town with unique central square) are easily achievable from Lublin.

Going There

I would recommend two days in Lublin and half a day for any extra excursions planned. Lublin is served by London airports and in the north by Doncaster, making it surprisingly easy to get to. The airport is an absolute breeze and takes roughly half an hour by bus into the centre.

Final Thoughts

Well off most British travellers itinerary, Lublin shows it has a striking, occasionally surprising appeal and enough there to hold your attention for a long weekend. What makes it extra special is the friendliness of the young crowd in the old town and their surprise that you bothered to visit their lovely city. It is a hidden gem and one likely to last in the memory.