undiscovered

Šibenik, Croatia

You might have thought Croatia – Dalmatia especially – was starting to become old news. Game of Thrones has finally tipped Dubrovnik over into being a theme park and a tourist trap, with some unpalatable western-feeling prices for tourist attractions and restaurant dining. While the place may have registered a glimmer a decade ago among the more discerning, virtually every man and his dog knows about it. Meanwhile, several other of the major towns have joined the cheap flight network, with Split especially being a hub for American, Australian and British backpackers.

The surge in popularity for Croatia as a destination is perfectly understandable. With an ever-evolving dramatic unspoilt coastline of rocky clifftops and island archipelagos, a cuisine that offers fresh seafood, very affordable good quality Italian food and Yugoslavian grilled meats, a rugged landscape dotted with ruined fortresses, remote churches and fascinating remnants from the still recent war, there’s a lot to dig into and in the main it is accessible and affordable.

Why Šibenik then, in particular?

Šibenik may come as a surprise, even if you partake in a little research before your visit. While there are certain advantages to being situated in Split or Dubrovnik, Šibenik puts you within shooting distance of a number of otherwise difficult to access activities, while being a charming and atmospheric town in its own right.

What may not be apparent straight away is the lay of the land. Šibenik is a hill town, meaning objects may be further away than they appear on your map, as I discovered booking an apartment I thought was merely 20 minutes walk from town. Choose your location carefully.

However, often the great thing about such towns is their aesthetic, with sloped snaky streets leading into the hills out of town, and a fascinating rabbit warren of an old town leading directly into people’s back yards in a similar way to Robin Hood’s Bay and the like. Wandering through these little yards and urban gardens, climbing up the hill from the main square rewards you with a terrific view. Of any of the major towns on the coast, it is Šibenik that has the prettiest coastline, with an array of beautiful forested islands in which seem to make up a smaller scale world map in themselves. The waters are clear and blue, and you’ll feel like jumping on a hang glider or charging up a jet pack to get a full view. For those of us without such equipment, carry on climbing and you will meet the first of three fortresses in Šibenik itself. For a fair price you can gain entry to a recently modernised and restored fortress, and a ticket that allows you access to Barone Fortress, the highest up and hardest to reach, but as you’d expect, one with a jaw-dropping view. In addition to the three mainland fortresses there is Saint Nikole’s dramatic island fortress based on an island accessible via stepping stones (and a few splashes in the sea) a cycle ride south of the town.

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Looks good, so where are the tourists?

Šibenik felt to me like a city starting to gear itself up to being a major destination. Many of the alleys through the old town area still have an ungentrified look that treads a line between rustic and dilapidated, but this is slowly – at Croatia’s usual pedestrian speed – starting to change. The town’s normal tourism is derived from backpackers and those on boating holidays who anchor at the sea front, but they are starting to pick up more middle class, middle aged, monied tourists as well as word spreads. The town is starting to put on a ‘face’, in the same way as its more illustrious neighbours.

However, this is a long way off. For the time being you can enjoy relative peace and quiet exploring a wonderful historic centre without the choked feeling of crowds, dozens of souvenir stands and people bothering you.

What are the main sights?

Other than the three fortresses mentioned above and the mazy old town, there is a 15th century cathedral with a UNESCO inscription, an atmospheric central square, a typical ‘Riva’ (the promenade on the seafront), as well a small but pleasant beach. A walk from the beach into town gives you a fantastic view of the place as well as being a truly relaxing and pleasant stroll.

In addition to Šibenik itself, you may take boat trips to the nearby islands, which out of season you may find unerringly quiet, although for peace and natural beauty you could hardly go wrong. Šibenik is also a jumping off point for a day trip to Krka National Park an essential trip on your stay here.

The national park is accessible via one public bus at 11am and returning at 5pm, which gives you the chance to walk from the town of Skradin to the park, and enjoy a good 3 hours there before walking back and getting the bus to Šibenik. The park is famous for a series of cascades and waterfalls, an old hydroelectric power plant, monastery and huge plant and animal diversity. Entry is relatively expensive but no-one who visits will ever say it isn’t worthwhile. To top it off, the pool at the bottom of Skradinski Buk, Krka’s most famous waterfall is shallow and in the spring and summer warm enough to swim in. Bring some swimming clothes and take a dip for one of the most amazing experiences of your life. If I’m honest you could spent all week just around Krka itself and never get bored, it’s a paradise.

Okay well…yes, I’ll be going then. What about nightlife though?

Those of you who have visited Croatia before will be aware of the curse of the Caffe Bar, one cultural tradition that certainly won’t be missed if it ever dies down. Caffe Bars are generic mediocrity writ large and almost a watchword for predictability and lack of atmosphere or character. During the day or early evening it’s fine sitting out in one of these places, but when the day turns colder and thoughts turn to having a drink in an interesting place, you’ll struggle to find many places that don’t have interiors like the UK’s dreadful period of the late nineties through to the mid-noughties, where old pubs were gutted and replaced by tacky modern furnishings that lasted barely a few years before ageing incredibly badly.  However, there is one diamond in the rough, and that’s Azimut, an alternative bar/club set in the basement under the steps to the main square, a pleasingly offbeat venue with character, good decor, better beer than usual and a sprinkling of young life. Just the antidote to the whiff of desperation and resigned mediocrity about most of the rest of them.

Walking back at night was also a little interesting as there are little to no street lights in the neighbourhoods west of town, and plenty of youngsters bombing around on mopeds and cars at a loose end, which might make you feel a little more like you’re in backstreet Naples or Rio de Janeiro. Nevertheless, outside of that it does feel like a relaxed and safe place, and exercising caution and downloading a map will see you right.

It would be a shame to only stop off in Šibenik for lunch or as a temporary transit point to Krka National Park. There is enough there and in the surroundings to last at least 72 hours with a full itinerary, yet enough peace and beauty to want to stretch it out even longer, as you will discover for yourself if you give this excellent town a try.  You can access the town via a bus from Zadar, or by travelling north from Split

 

 

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Loket, Czech Republic

The main reason most people will go anywhere near Loket, never mind into the place itself, is on a day-trip or a weekend break to the grand thermal spas of Karlovy Vary. These people comprise students on coach trips from Prague, Asian camera-tourists who would take a picture of a lamp-post if you told them it had cultural significance (and would probably capture the lamppost for posterity anyway, just in case it did), cheapskate German retirees driving over the border for cut-price spa treatments, and oil-rich Russians trying to show off to their mates. Most of the Germans and Russians wouldn’t be interested in Loket even if you told them about it.

I’m fairly sure intrepid backtracking sorts and Asian tourists (who in spite of my mocking, love a medieval castle and are attracted to beauty of all kinds) would be interested in the sequestered hill town of Loket, a gem in Czech Republic’s small unheralded borders.

It’s odd quite what people think Prague actually is, in relation to the wider country or whether the majority visiting realise Prague old town represents only the most grand expression of Bohemian and Gothic culture in the country, not simply all of it gathered in one place. For whatever reason, it’s not like France where everyone is bustling out to the small towns at their earliest opportunity. Hardly any bugger ventures out of the capital. And yet there are dozens of Czech towns which have some astoundingly beautiful aspects, usually a harmonious blend of architecture with the natural surroundings, which people simply never visit and Loket is one of them.

It’s annoying to think of the scores of French towns I’ve been dragged through (which had a modicum of civic pride but were otherwise nothing more than pleasant) when I could have been coming here.

Take a bus from Karlovy Vary’s bus station, an amusing step away from the grandeur in the centre to a windswept dilapidated depot on the other side of the river. Google-searching public transport to Loket might make you think there’s hardly any options available, but you’d be wrong. There’s a regular bus that passes through and will drop you off into Loket after about 25 minutes. The bus is a typically elderly machine, and the concern isn’t so much whether the seatbelts work as to whether the bus is going to fall apart entirely around you. The journey takes you on a cranky, rattling chug through a pleasant winding wooded road, without too much in the way of sweeping vistas, which I think is what makes the eventual reveal so impressive.

Loket’s situation, aesthetically as much as any other, could hardly be more idyllic. Over the crest of a hill the town is suddenly displayed below, sticking out from a promontory, the hill top dramatically facing a u-bend along the meandering River Ohre. Loket’s translation ‘Elbow’ makes the most sense from this position.

The medieval castle and arched bridge over the river makes for a most magnificent sight, complimented by the beautiful baroque and bohemian painted houses dotted around it.

After the grand reveal, your clapped out bus (and driver) deposits you near the gate into town, but be sure to take a five minute walk back up the hill to enjoy the view as it develops and the angles change, similar to Cesky Krumlov but on a smaller but perhaps even starker scale.

Loket is dominated by its castle, however, the castle in no way defines the place. You can enjoy a good couple of hours exploring the streets (all of which are interesting in their own ways) wandering back up and down the alley ways and taking in the sights. As with most Czech towns, the Namesti is a good place to start, with the requisite gnarled gothic centre piece, cobbled streets and wholly charming array of traditional townhouses lining the perimeter in a shell-like shape.

The castle itself could hardly be avoided though, and you’ll find it decent value as the museum uses the space of the buildings well, giving you both an idea of its use, plenty of vantage points and exhibits. Don’t forget to look down the cellar for the castle’s pet dragon, one of the more strangely pathetic sights on my last trip.

With the hills and forests around, you will find yourself most enjoying Loket as part of a trek, and luckily there are so many trails that you can tailor this to fit your own needs and limitations. Most of them have a deal of vantage points, and the local environment has a calmness that you’ll find most relaxing. Although the place is small, there’s no reason simply to stay for a day given the natural amenities in the area allow for quite a lot of exploration.

Don’t leave Loket unless you’ve walked the perimeter of the interior and exterior and decided which spot is your favourite!

At some point thoughts inevitably turn to food and drink, and a further feather in Loket’s cap is the brewery Pivovar Svaty Florian, located in the centre of town itself and attached to a hotel. They have a cellar-style Pivnice which is servicable for a trip of this kind, and will pour you a degustation so you can try the various beers. Don’t leave before trying their delicious ‘Special’ beer, a strong concoction similar to a Bock. In addition to this you can order the traditional hearty pub grub to wash it down with.

If you want a more straightforward drinking option try the hospoda U Gardnera, a really no-nonsense locals place that won’t be heaving with tourists and will guarantee you a good beer at a good price.

One slight regret is that a beautiful Victorian chain bridge was destroyed and replaced with the new rather grey one, which although elegant at a distances becomes gradually duller and less impressive as you get closer. There also seems to be a rather unnecessary enormity about it.

Loket_retezovy

There are always regrets, though, such is life.

All things considered, Loket could be half as beautiful as it is currently and still be many times more beautiful than most places. If you aren’t able to visit the extraordinary Czech town Cesky Krumlov on your next visit to the country, but can visit Karlovy Vary, you can come to Loket. Visiting Loket will give you a starter-sized portion for what’s in store. A dramatic gem hidden away in a valley, shrouded with trees as though to cover its modesty, and with an element of romantic timelessness that will stay with you forever.

Bamberg, Germany

For obvious reasons, there is always a degree of reticence planning a stay of a day or longer in a smaller, unexplored city. Fortunately, Bamberg holds a straight flush of the main things you could think of that make a place great.

As a city of 74,000 inhabitants, Bamberg is approximately the same size as Scunthorpe. However, that coincidence aside, it would be difficult to find two more different towns within 90 minutes flight of each other.

Bamberg boasts the rather obscure fact of being the very first inscription to UNESCO, an institute entirely devoted to preserving and promoting historically significant places and monuments. You would think people would be blazing a trail for it in the same manner they do to nearly every small town in the Loire Valley or the Dordogne, most of which (if you subtract the wining and dining) offer half a day’s interest at most. This city’s inscription covers the entirety of the old town, an expanse of interest which particularly appealed after my last trip to Germany was bookended by a trip to Hildesheim, a city with one fake-historic (albeit very impressive) town square, only a tiny restored oasis of beauty in an otherwise dirty, downtrodden and featureless Scunthorpe of a place. It was clear from cursory research there was plenty of sightseeing to be had. It also made me wonder why Bamberg has become buried under larger more undeserving German cities as a destination, and overlooked by the romantic road/fachwerk town daytrippers who head for the likes of Heidelberg and Rothenburg for their fix of classical architecture and wonky rooftops.

What makes a city great?

There are certain intangible aspects you can’t quite ever articulate about some places no matter how hard you try. However, it’s good to start with the raw materials. I called it a straight flush, right? Well, to labour the card hand theme, here are five aspects I think help make a great city like Bamberg, and indeed any city.

1. Rivers. Any riverside setting is almost always an improvement. The flow of water is a natural respite from the harsh sounds of the city, and feels like oxygen being fed into starved lungs. It’s a place for recreation, for viewing things and furthermore it demands the construction of bridges. No city has ever suffered from a surplus of bridges. Bridges are excellent. Rivers are also a reminder of a place’s historical purpose for existing. The trading, the travel. It also reminds you where the water has come from,where it is going and therefore gives a place a sense of connection. Unlike in Eastern Europe where rivers are often ignored and on the periphery, most Western European towns are either historic or wise enough to have city-planned around the river, making it a focal point. Bamberg is a classic example of this, indeed it goes so far as to put its extraordinary centrepiece, the Altes Rathaus on a bridge over the river. Comprised of a grand tower, a baroque palace, and sticking out on the end, at first glance seemingly dangling unsupported over the river, a large yellow fachwerkhaus. It’s one of those things that really defies existence. You can only see this in Bamberg. Due to the weir, the river rushes past at quite a pace, so much that there are kayak lanes dotting the way. I can’t recall too many cities where the central river has such a strong current. This again gives it a specific character.

2. Hills. Steep-angled pavement and winding streets almost always result in more atmospheric places. It’s the city struggling to tame the surroundings and not quite managing. Whether it’s Bastide towns in France, or Yorkshire Dales villages in England like Howarth and Heptonstall, hills make a huge difference in giving a place a sense of character. Bamberg’s centre is relatively flat on the east bank, however travelling west from the cluster of breweries by the river takes you quickly up the contours and into a series of seven hills, each with it’s own tower and lookout point. The Altenburg is set on the tallest of these, and offers a very attractive 5 mile walk from town and back through parks and woodland, with an extraordinary view of the city along the way. On your walk back you can take a while discovering what is really the undiscovered part of Bamberg, the residential west bank. This area isn’t full of activities per se but the historic housing, undulating winding streets and general prettiness is on another level to many residential areas I can think of. Despite the history all around you, it has the rhythm and local life of an everyday suburb, making it all really, quite special. Especially when it’s Christmas and New Year, and snowing:

3. A Clear Sense Of What The Place Used To Be

A place which has made its mark in history is a fine thing, but if there’s hardly any of it left to look at, to walk through, to smell, taste or experience, well, you’d be in Coventry. You’d be in Kaliningrad. Some of it can be brought back through restoration jobs, but as they are very difficult, not to mention expensive, you are often left with only a hint and a suggestion of the place’s character, and sometime a distinctly fake ‘Disneyland’ type feel. Everybody wants a real flavour of what a city was like in its high period. This is why events like German Markets are so popular, because of our yearning to experience not only heritage, but social simplicity; things you can easily reach out for, eat, drink and touch. Bamberg evidently had two clear high periods, a high medieval period where it was an important town in the Holy Roman Empire, and a later 18th century period where it became a seat of learning and inherited the piles of baroque and classical architecture it’s sitting on. The Alte Hofhaltung with its superb grand timbered ‘Innenhof’ complex and the nearby Neue Residenz sum both of those periods up nicely, and it’s typical of the city that both are still standing. Because Bamberg’s old town is so large as a constituent part of its whole, a walk from the train station to the Altenburg feels like you’ve achieved a transect through nearly entirely interesting mix of historical architecture, almost becoming better, and better as you go along. It’s a rare thing.

4. A centrally located university

Yes, there’s nothing like this to inject energy and atmosphere to a city. Cities filled with young people are immediately more vital feeling, livelier and less predictable. The demand for amenities and entertainment make every bit of retail space in the centre sought after, meaning it’s far easier to find things to do when you want to do them. Bamberg would otherwise turn into a granny-fest like the brilliant, but undeniably pensioner-stricken Goslar , a city I wrote about back in June 2016.

5. A preserved unbroken chain of brewing, pubs and nightlife offering something unique.

A vast amount of holidaying and travelling should be spent absorbing local nightlife and local brews. It is almost a test of any place worth a damn. If a town’s residents can’t be bothered to congregate and spend time with each other then what do you have left? A dormitory where people wake up, get in their cars, drive to work and return home without having made any input into the city they call home. People sneer at the admittedly drab working men’s clubs and shitholes dotted around the place, but everyone in them is contributing to their town’s identity more than many of you are out there. Places without local life are vacuous and pointless dormitories. Pleased to inform you Bamberg is about as far away from that as you could imagine.

Bamberg offers nine (9) independent breweries in the altstadt alone (I put the digit in there a la the final score vidiprinter for when people need to rub their eyes). I don’t need to tell you that’s rare, going on unique. These breweries aren’t closed doors sold-elsewhere places either, these are German brauhauses also offering their own pub, and usually their own restaurant with it. The jewel in the crown is Aecht Schlenkerla‘s pub, in every single way one of my favourite public houses and the epitome of an atmospheric, authentic, and traditional style pub. Dark wood, beams, a window-hatch for serving, gravity pulled beer direct from the barrel, roaring fire, shared seating, friendly locals, and the unique rauchbier.

Rauchbier must be among the most acquired of all beer tastes, being as it is, smoked, something most people are familiar with powerful tasting meats and cheeses, not so much liquids (though there is the smoked tequila Mezcal my girlfriend has introduced me to). Rather like kissing a smoker for the first time, I must confess on a first tasting there is an initial urge to recoil as the smoke flavour engulfs your mouth. Locals assured me that it takes 3 pints of smoke beer to get used to it, and after that it’s fine. I did manage to cross that threshold, though over the course of 2 years preceding this visit, meaning I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect! However, the standard Marzen rauchbier is very nice indeed, perfect for a winter beverage, being hearty, thick and brown with a lovely aftertaste that invites you to dive in and have more. It’s a peculiar flavour but one you very quickly get used to, much as I suppose the Germans would find with English Bitter.

Luckily for the timid there is the usual array of local Pils to try, along with some interesting other beers, as Franconia is famous for its Kellerbier, a delicious unpasteurised and unfiltered ale second only to Hefeweizen in my opinion, as the German’s finest contribution to brewing.

Food-wise, you are deeply ensconced in Wurstland, people. Franconian food starts with sausages and sauerkraut, and everything else is relegated to second place. Most food orders simply involve barking a number at a middle aged woman in a milkmaid’s outfit who will return in due course (usually 5 minutes max) with that quantity of sausages. The Bambergerwurst is a medium sized and thickness grilled sausage, and you can eat this at Schlenkerla’s cloistered banqueting hall from a metal plate with your smoked rye bread and sauerkraut studded with bacon rind. It’s like dining directly from the Middle Ages. Agricultural, and with a flavour profile you won’t even need to remember because you’ll still be tasting the aftertrails of it for weeks after. However, it’s unlikely there’ll be any scraps on your plate left to feed the dogs- it’s delicious. Also check out ‘Bamberger Zwiebel’, local delicacy, an onion shell stuffed with meat. Yes, it doesn’t get more Germanic than this.

There are so many pubs to try it would be impossible to cover these in a few days, but hey, that kind of sounds like a challenge. Who ever complained about a wealth of pubs?

In summary…

Bamberg belies its size, because so much of its outlying areas are also still really nice. So many other cities you have to break through an outer shell of shit before you reach the stari grad, the stare miasto, the altstadt, etc. Bamberg starts off by being reasonably nice, and gets gradually nicer and more impressive from there. But it isn’t all skirt and no knickers – beyond the painted facades and hours of pleasing wandering there is a buzzing centre with an underbelly full of local life living some of it just as you could imagine hundreds of years ago, but without the witch trials, silly hats and ritual prayer (or so I imagine).

Fly in to Nuremburg and on there to Bamberg, 50 minutes on the train. You simply must pay it a visit, or maybe even make it your new home! Got to be better than Scunthorpe.

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!

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.