POLAND has such a tormented history, perhaps nowhere more so than in Szczecin.
It has been Danish, Swedish, Prussian, French, German (they called it Stettin because it was easier to pronoune) and finally controlled by the Russians until regaining its independence just over 20 years ago. This has not given much time to rebuild the city.
The 406,000 inhabitants come from different parts of Poland when, just after World War II, the Russians forcibly moved Poland westwards, evicting the Germans and transferring Polish people from the East. This is a simplified version of a long, complicated history, but it is necessary to understand a little of the past to see why so many buildings have been rebuilt after the massive destruction of the war.
Szczecin was a major shipbuilding centre and commercial port. It is linked by waterway to Berlin. Dotted around the city are over 40 large ships’ anchors which were pulled out of the river Oder and the docks from bombed ships. Two of the three men who made the ‘Great Escape” from the German prisoner of war camp were smuggled aboard a ship here in Szczecin and made it back home to Britain.
Despite its relatively recent emergence as a major Polish city, it is firmly getting going. Construction and reconstruction is constant and it has a dynamic, clear vision of where it wants to be, with the slogan ‘Szczecin – Floating Garden 2050’. I’m certain that it will achieve it.
Despite being a bit shabby around the edges – many pavements are atrocious and the main railway station is scruffy – Szczecin has class. Baron G.E. Haussmann may be famous for setting out the streets of Paris, but he also set out Szczecin, with broad avenues radiating from three main stars said to represent the constellation Orion. Szczecin was known as ‘The Paris of the North’ before WW2 and, with the vast works on its waterways, is confidently working towards being ‘The Venice of the North’.
More than half its area is green or water, and more and more modern marinas are being constructed to capitalise on its unique sea and water assets. Cruise ships call here, the Tall Ships will be there in August, 2013, and as a contrast you can hire a kayak to explore the waterways or relax on regular tour boats. Like Scotland, Szczecin has a great herring tradition, and fresh fish appear on most menus.
Specialities are special gingerbread patties, allowed in only five shapes, fish, anchor, ship, sailor and seagull. The patties (rolled dough filled with cabbage and mushrooms, or beef and cheese, for example) originated in 1969 when a surplus Russian army field kitchen was used to make them. They are usually eaten with beetroot soup, and a fish and rice pate. Beer is a tradition, and a good place to sample good beer and eat well is the Browar Brewery in the city centre, in the 150-year-old garrison HQ building (see www.starakomenda.pl)
The prices are very good, and most things are cheaper for us hard-pressed Brits. The currency is the Polish Zloty. Credit cards are accepted in most places, and English is widely spoken. Getting around is easy, too. There is a walking trail covering all the major places to see. This is marked with a dotted red line on the pavements, and now and then a number relates to details in the guide book. There are also wheelchair routes.
In total, 7kms of walking routes are marked out. There are many artistic events throughout the year, too many to list, and Szczecin has the largest library in Poland (dating from 1905), 20 galleries, nine theatres, eight museums and five cinemas. One of these, the Pionier, is the oldest in the world – they proudly display their Guinness Book of Records certificate – dating from 1909. This lovely little cinema is worth a visit.
Walking around you will come across three of the old city gates. Today they are marooned in the traffic and trams, but one is now a chic restaurant. There is also the rose garden dating from 1928 with over 100 varieties of roses, and behind the new town hall a large grass area dominated by a huge statue of Pope John Paul II, erected in 1995 to mark the Pope’s visit to Szczecin in 1987. It is difficult for us to understand the massive significance of that visit. Of course the Pope was Polish, but more than that, it was the first time that a Pope had been allowed to visit Poland, and the Catholic Church had been a major source of protest against Communism. The Pope’s visit signified the end of Communism and the freedom of Szczecin.
The shipyard strikes in Gdansk and Szczecin, with the Solidarity Union, liberated Poland. The Szczecin involvement is not so well known as the press were not allowed in there, but the spirit of freedom is as strong as in Gdansk. Facing the huge statue of the Pope is another, of three eagles taking off, one after the other. It represents three generations of Poles who have had to fight for their freedom and is called ‘Polish Great Deeds’.
In the summer an historic tram gives rides around the city centre, to places like the castle and the many unusual and wonderful churches, including the Cathedral, which was largely destroyed in the last war. While I was inside it was struck by lightning in a storm. There was a deafening bang and bright blue flash. The lightening had blown up the mechanism of the lift that takes you up to the top of the tower, but luckily no one was in it.
Shopping is an important thing too, especially for Germans who come here because things are cheaper for them, too. A large, modern shopping centre has all the modern international shops, but there are still the traditional small shops and kiosks. Street traders included an old lady who had a blanket on the pavement in front of a small supermarket selling her own grown potatoes and leeks with a couple of cabbages. At one stall I bought the largest walnuts I have ever seen, and had a chat with the young man who spoke excellent English, as I found everywhere.
To get around there is the tourist card, which provides free public transport and many discounts, and is available for 24 hours or three days. The tourist office is very efficient, and can advise on this and provide a lot of help and information (see www.szczecin.eu).
From a large range of hotels, I stayed at the Novotel in the centre, close to the railway station and all the attractions. Attached to it is the Ibis, same group but a more budget hotel.
My test for the many places that I have visited is whether I would take my wife there and I definitely plan to go again with Christine. There is such a lot of interesting things to see (like the underground tourist route – incredible underground tunnels that could house 5,000 people, helping to offset the horrors of the aerial bombardment) and there is a buzz and friendliness about Szczecin.
Can you say that by visiting Szczecin you have experienced the true Poland? I think you can. Krakow has more old buildings, Warsaw is the capital that was quite crushed in WW2, but in Szczecin you experience that strong, forward looking, confident, independent outlook that typifies Poles. That is why I am certain that they will succeed with the floating gardens project (which by the way is only in English, not Polish, as they say that it is the language of the world now).
Szczecin has a kaleidoscopic history, but it is now firmly set on a strong course for the future. Well worth a visit.