Thursday, 31 May 2012

Świdnica - one of Poland's unknown pearls

I've just returned from Świdnica, south-west Poland, going there and back by night train - an institution that's a very effective combination of transport and nocleg (a useful two-syllable word in Polish that needs several English words to convey - 'accommodation for the night'). A one-way journey costs 145 zlótys (about 25 quid), leaving W-wa Wschodnia at 22:18, I wake up in Wrocław eight hours later. The same train carries me on to Jaworzyna Śląska, and on from there to Świdnica, for the Kongres Regionów. This is a major annual local government get-together at which I'll be talking about the UK experience in public-private partnerships. I return the same evening, and arrive in Warsaw's W-wa Wschodnia at seven this morning. In the meantime, W-wa Wschodnia has been reopened (more on that anon).

Travelling around Poland is becoming easier and cheaper. The appearance of a new airline, OLT Express, has forced state carrier LOT to slash its prices on internal routes. The new motorway between Warsaw and Łódź will been deemed 'passable' by the Polish government in time for the football (though the S2 southern Warsaw bypass will not be ready). However, the night train, where available, is for me the ideal way of covering longer journeys across Poland.

Now, Poland is full of noteworthy or even stunning gems, hidden away, unknown to most Poles. I had no idea, for instance, that Świdnica is home to the world's largest wooden church of UNESCO heritage status. It is quite breathtaking.

I suspect that one of the reasons it is not promoted more widely within Poland is because it is so clearly German. From the outside, it looks un-Polish – indeed, from certain angles it would not be out of place in Warwickshire or Kent. The black-and-white timber-framed church sits among greenery at its greenest now, late May. But a quick look at the tombstones – they are all in German. A few names hint at Polish roots, germanised.

Inside, a party of Germans in their early 60s is being conducted around the church, with a German-speaking guide. As I leave, soon after they do, another group enters the church – German teenagers on a school visit.

I am minded of my visit to Lwów/Lviv – seven years ago. There's a constant nagging worry at the back of the mind – Lwów/Lviv was so clearly a Polish city – the pavements, the walls, the squares, the churches – are testament to that. So if it was Polish – shouldn't it be Polish now? And Schwiednitz, in alte Niederschliesen... it was German – shouldn't it be so now? There are the obvious ins-and-out of 20th Century history, but in places like this, the dissonance is evident.

The church itself is a clear case. It was – and remains – a Protestant, Lutheran church, in a Catholic country. What amazed me, however, was its interior – it drips with Baroque, in its mitteleuropaische version. I expected dourness and austerity – yet the Baroque is so over-the-top as to feel at home in any counter-reformation Roman Catholic cathedral. And the smell... that unique smell of a centuries old wooden church.

Wrocław, which I feel I know fairly well, has had is more Germanic edges filed down, softened, over the decades, while Świdnica – not so cosmopolitan, not so knowing, has been left looking as it did in 1939, with the bomb damage filled in 1960s style.

More pics from Świdnica tomorrow, plus the remont at Dworzec Wschodni.

This time last year:
New lick of paint for W-wa Powiśle station

This time two years ago:
The Ingredients of Success

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki's Spirit of Place


sportif said...

Lwów przez prawie sześć stuleci był polskim miastem, teraz jest ukraiński. Z niemieckimi nazwami w Polsce lepiej nie kombinować, wolę jechać do Oświęcimia a Auschwitz mieć tylko w pamięci.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ sportif.

Lwów? A Ukrainian would say "z polskimi nazwami na Ukrainie lepiej nie kombinować".

This, indeed, is my point.