Indeed it’s been a while since I’ve set out to explore a new part of the world (or at least, new to me). So when T and I had a few days free recently, we made a wild impetuous decision to spend a weekend in….Szczecin, Poland.
Besides its nearly impossible pronunciation (something like “shtetshin,” similar to its name during German days, Stettin) and historic interest, Szczecin had the benefit of proximity (two hours by regional train) and cost. We booked a room in the fanciest digs in town and paid about half of what a boring hotel chain might cost in a standard German city. So with no expectations besides novelty, we hopped on the train and set forth.
Short snippet o’ history here: along with Gdansk (Danzig), Wroclow (Breslau), Poznan (Posen), Klapeida (Memel) and others, Szczecin inhabits a slice of territory that has gone back and forth between Germany and Poland for nigh on close to a thousand years and has as long and complicated a history as any city you can name. Until the start of the Second World War, the city had been a thriving port and industrial center with somewhere in the neighborhood of a half million inhabitants. Allied air raids in 1944 destroyed about 65 percent of the city, and when it was transferred to Polish control a year or so later, those 400,000 inhabitants were forciably expelled, leaving only about 25,000 hungry souls still in residence. Dislocated Poles and Ukrainians from other parts of Europe were rapidly resettled in Szczecin and rebuilt the city, but of course, on a very low budget and with pressing time constraints.
Which is where the urban architecture, and the accompanying history gets interesting and a bit sad. The city today is a mix of the old and new. On one hand, you have the remainder of what was a beautifully planned, beautifully laid out, and beautifully built city, almost French in its symmetry and geometrics. Whole blocks still maintain the gracious spacing and elegant facades that lend themselves to long strolls along tree-lined boulevards or through inviting parks, squares, or shopping areas.
On the other hand, there’s the rest…the awkward blocky rectangles of “socialism strikes again” architecture that one sees all over the former Iron Curtain countries, sprinkled liberally around the city as if shaken from a box in the sky that reads “Worker’s Paradise” on one side and “Aesthetics is for Sissies” on the other. These buildings can reach seven to ten stories and often sport brightly colored accents that highlight the moldy stucco and multiple lines of laundry. You get the picture.
Anyway, I have chosen in this post to focus on the parts of Szczecin that drew my eye to the history and the beauty of the past, and away from the bad fashion choices of the last seventy years. And first, because it’s Christmas, here’s a shot from the last day of the markets that we just managed to hit:
And here are a couple slightly sinister Grand Inquisitor/gnome-type creatures that graced a children’s game. Frankly, if I had been a kid, they would have frightened me off, and I sure hope I don’t see them in my dreams:
Our city navigation strategy is usually to search out and find antique stores, and hence we find ourselves often in the older and more historic parts of town. On this particular day, we only found the shops closed, but we did stumble on some lovely neighborhoods:
I was absolutely charmed by this courtyard below, located inside a clearly state-of-the-art 1902 Art Nouveau retail shopping and apartment building. A la William Morris, every architectural detail, all the fencing iron work, every shade of paint, everything worked together for a flawless presentation:
…but of course, the effects are fleeting; nearby a wag made a political statement on a natural gas meter:
…and a water fountain from former times maintains a watch on passers-by:
Close to our hotel stands the Pomeranian Dukes’ Castle, the seat of power in the region for about 500 years, roughly 1100-1600. We didn’t plan our visit well enough to get a chance to tour it, but I plan to on a repeat excursion:
You can see in the shot above how the mixed elements of the castle…are now cheek-to-jowl with more modern buildings on the street. (At least they line up with some regularity, unlike other parts of the city.)
And even the castle itself was decked in holiday finery:
Well, now that we’ve pounded leather for hours in search of pens and come up short, at least we’ve taken the measure of the place and decided to come back for more. That all, as you might imagine, works up a might thirst on a cold rainy windy day, which a local foam in a charming little cafe was more than able to slake:
Then we headed back to our hotel restaurant where, as the only diners in the establishment, we were treated to an outstanding meal and a marvelous wine at a price that would have barely cover the wine anywhere else. What a pleasant surprise…
So there’s a little taste of Szczecin, just enough to get you as intrigued and curious as I am to learn more. I’m hoping to make many more such trips in the new year, and I look forward to having you along on my shoulder for every one.