And, at last, for the first time in 2014, I have made it to a new country. Little over an hour from Germany, a country I have travelled extensively and a culture I have grown accustomed to, I am now working out the maths on an unfamiliar currency and attempting to read a language I have never read before. Traversing only 250km west and into Poland, the change is tangible; the “East-y West” of Berlin to the “West-y East” of Poznan in just three hours. A truly European story.
Poland’s not somewhere I knew a whole load about; in fact, I knew hardly anything. When I set my mind to it, I could only come up with four Polish cities, and Jacky and I gave up attempting to list famous Poles after only a Pope and some footballers, without being able to name a single one. (John Paul II, Podolski and Klose, I later clarified.) However, there was a lovely Polish girl called Ola from Couchsurfing who showed me around the Swiss city of Bern last year, now I think about it, and a tenth of the population of my university city, Southampton, were also from the country. Needless to say, my knowledge of Poland, Poles and Polish was minimal and borderline naive, and what with me now living so close to the country, that frankly won’t do.
Travelling to Poznan with Simple Express, a coach service which runs from Berlin’s ZOB at Kaiserdamm or Schönefeld Airport to bloody Tallinn (!), paying €15, and having multimedia screens in the back of the seats got us off to the best start. (We travelled home with PolskiBus which, though very slightly cheaper, was a compromise on comfort and practicality, stopping only on the outskirts of the city. Simple Express is better, you heard it here first.) Arriving in the city at 1.30am after a long Friday in the office and walking the mile or so from the main coach and train station to the city centre in the hunt for our hostel, I had much expected 1000-or-so year old Poznan to be at peace. In thinking this, I had clearly overlooked its status as a university city, and upon entering the main square we were confronted with the tail-end of a heavy night; the kebab stage of the night, if you know what I mean. Wodka, beer, the odd flying punch, and footwear choices that looked positively lethal on the cobbled streets of the old town. Fabulous, we thought, it’s got atmosphere.
Our accommodation of choice was Tey Hostel, quite literally metres from the city’s main square. Aside from the extremely kitschy, extremely IKEA decor of the place, we were impressed. It had everything you’d normally expect from a big city tourist-y hostel (24hr reception, Wi-Fi, guest kitchen and lounge), even though it wasn’t particularly busy. It was cheap too, at roughly €8.50 per person per night in an 8-bed dorm. We ditched our bags and headed out for a late night wander. Despite the smashed glass underfoot, and hits of 2011 at full volume, our first impressions are strong.
In the light of the morning we could confirm that, though cold, grey, and slightly more rundown than what we’re used to, Poznan is beautiful, and delightfully festive at this time of year. It’s main Old Market Square (Stary Rynek) has more than a little Old Town Square, Prague about it, though a few notches down on the grandeur scale. Around the sides are colourfully painted four-to-five story high buildings serving as bars and restaurants at street level, and in the middle is the Old Town Hall, beautifully late Renaissance. Much like its Czech counterpart, there’s a bit of a fanfare every day at 12, when mechanical goats appear and start butting heads, or so I’m told. Daytime in the square was a Christmassy affair, with bread stalls, gift stalls, alcohol stalls… As you’d expect. The atmosphere was lively and festive, which continued after the fall of darkness, as you can see above.
No less festive, just a short walk uphill, is Plac Wolnosci, pictured above and in the title photo. Identified by the geometric structure in the middle, which is apparently a fountain during the Summer, the square was being used to record a large group of carol singers for some sort of TV broadcast. The Christmassy setting and the Polish voices carrying through the chilly air made for a beautiful moment, although after hearing the same carol for the fourth time, we were happy to move on.
Back to daylight, and in the north west of the city, you’ll find the 10th century Archcathedral Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, one of the oldest churches in Poland and the oldest Polish cathedral, pictured below. With a statue depicting the late Polish pope in a rather over-the-top ethereal way (seen to the right of the image), and scores of church-goers sitting silently in the pews, the country’s devout Catholic roots are clear. Several notable leaders have been buried in the building over the years, but it was almost completely rebuilt in the Gothic style after a fire caused serious damage in 1945.
I, for one, find the gaudy gold and extravagance of, say, the churches in Prague overwhelming, so the well-maintained brick interior and stained glass windows of Poznan’s offering was a welcome sight.
The area behind the cathedral is noticeably shabbier than the old town; a little more grey and run-down, but, we found some real architectural gems and warm cafes, which I’m going to focus on in another post. Before long we reached the misty shores of Jezioro Maltanskie, or Lake Malta, a calm yet unphotogenic reservoir used for water sports. If you have a little spare time and need to walk off your lunch, this is a peaceful spot; it’s only 20 minutes from the old town, and would make for a great cycling or boating opportunity during the summer months.
And so my telling of our Poznan story draws to a close, and I can safely say that with its charm, atmosphere, history, and culture, this cute little city in Western Poland is without a doubt worth visiting. Not only is it cheap, but it’s a great place to be a tourist; there is plenty of English and German signposting and information at the key sights, so there’s no need for a guide book, and the people we came across generally spoke one of the two languages. What’s more, it’s easily accessible from Germany; you really can get a taste of Eastern Europe with travelling very far at all.
Now I’m all the more determined to head to one of the larger Polish cities in 2015, but which one should I visit first?