It’s been a while since I have headed off to explore a new city so when my dear Polish friend M from Batumi days suggested we meet up for the weekend in Poznań, a city located basically smack dab between Berlin and her current home base of Warsaw, I couldn’t say “nie.” So last Saturday morning I hopped on an express train and soon found myself pulling into the local glowny:
Poznań, like so many sensible European cities, is arranged so that the transportation hub, a huge complex including both train and bus stations as well as a monster mall, is within easy walking or tram distance of most of the central city. I walked to my hotel, found M, and before you could say “Adam Mickiewicz,” (a famous Polish writer and activist), we were strolling down the long and charming pedestrian shopping street to the Old Town Square. Thankfully we had a little guidance…
Even though she’s Polish, M had never been to Poznań, so that made it even more fun, particularly because she could pronounce (and I could hear) the names of things and places which otherwise look like…a lot of really unrelated consonants. As we entered the square and prepared to circumnavigate it, we were halted in our tracks by the sight of children getting photographed….with goats….
Our initial confusion quickly gave way to a little context. It turns out goats are *a thing* in Poznań. I’m learning about this European city mascot concept. Berlin has bears (I think Bern does as well), Wroclaw has dwarves, Krakow has dragons, and Poznań has….goats. The short version of the long story is that the two original goats escaped the clutches of a chef in the 16th century, scampered up into the town hall tower, and proceeded to duke it out in full view of the surprised diners. These days, during warmer weather, they mark the noon hour with 12 head butts — but in January, it seems, they are enjoying a bit of a rest in the nice warm town hall musem:
This town square, like several others in Poland including Wroclaw, Krakow, and Gdansk, is truly beautiful. Yes, it was bombed back to the stone age during WWII, but it’s astonishing how the careful restoration allows one to feel that the place still retains its original charm. Here’s a shot from out of the town hall museum window:
…and here’s an interior glimpse of the main meeting room in the town hall:
These pretty pictures are all well and good but you knew you couldn’t escape the history much longer. Since I’m in a charitable mood today, I’ll keep in short. Among the oldest and largest cities in Poland, Poznań (at 550,000) figures high in Polish “trade, sports, education, technology, and tourism.” The city’s origins are lost in its pagan and preliterate past, but it came into prominence in the 10th century when the cathedral now known as the “SS Peter and Paul Archcathedral Basilica” was established in the Ostrow Tumski area immediately east of the town square, known in English as Cathedral Island. Many of the early rulers of Poland are buried here as well. I captured a shot of the back of the edifice at dusk framed by a walkway from the nearby interpretive center:
Inside the cathedral, a priest ministered to the faithful:
Germans were invited to come to the city as early as the middle of the 13th century, under the Magdeburg Law which granted a measure of autonomy to the local leader to develop his area as he saw fit. As a result of these and other settlers, the city became a major trading center in the region but, like most of Poland, suffered greatly during the 17th and 18th centuries under the onslaught of multiple wars, plagues, and fires. During the 19th and 20th centuries the city was variously under both German and Polish rule, with the expected massive expulsions and relocations resulting from every trade-off.
What I wasn’t expecting was the astonishing collection of Polish art at the National Museum (the MNP), one of the largest museums in Poland. I was ready for the usual array of goodies from the Bronze Age through the military uniforms and swords to the gramophones and typewriters. Instead, M and I were gobsmacked by the size and quality of paintings on display, from the 16th through the 20th century and exhibiting pieces I had never imagined by people I had never heard of. This is in fact a serious crime. The works in this museum should be on multiple international tours, to be shared with a much wider audience. I could do a whole blog on this museum, and maybe I will, but for now I have to content myself by showing you just this one:
This is (English translation) A Hutsul Funeral, painted in 1905 by Wladyslaw Jarocki (1879-1965). The Hutsuls were “highlanders of the Eastern Carpathian,” and this painting is intended to show that death is a part of life for these people, and funerals were a time of communion and cultural solidarity. I just like the way the artist conveyed the folk art in the women’s clothing and accessories. But speaking of crimes, it is important to note here that after the invasion of Poland in 1939 by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it is estimated that a half a million art objects were taken by the occupying powers. A half million pieces. Work is still underway to return as much as possible as it is identified.
So by this point you might be lulled into thinking that all of Poznań is a homage to the past or to a museum celebrating the gods of art. But of course this is not the case. Outside the historic inner city, Poznań is a vibrant metropolis, pulsing with life and commerce. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 160,000 students study here, there are frequent trade shows, and the area sees a good bit of tourism as well. One of the most recent and well-known developments is the Stary Browar (Old Brewery), a huge mall/entertainment/business/art gallery complex built on the site of, you guessed it, an old German brewery. It is jinormous and multi-storied. Here’s a shot of some of it (I couldn’t fit it all in) from our hotel window, with new(er) Poznań in the background:
Well, after all this dogging around town, you can imagine we were really hungry. M cleverly spotted the Gramofon Cafe and we dug into some really yummy local treats:
Sadly, before too long it was time to run for our respective trains and head back to our respective world capitals. I was fortunate that there was room in the club car on my train and I was able to enjoy some additional Polish hospitality with the hope of more to come in the future.
Net-net – Poznań is a place I look forward to seeing again; I feel we barely scratched the surface and that I have not yet begun to understand the stories that so clearly linger here But if you ever get a chance to see this museum – it’s a must do.
Makes me want to go there!
I do enjoy your reflections!