Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Poland's North West Frontier

Is it just geographic distance that makes Poland's north-west so inaccessible from the rest of the country? I'm on the third leg of a journey that's given me food for thought, regarding the connectedness of Poland and how that affects economic and social progress.

The Yalta and Potsdam agreements shifted Poland 200km further west at the end of WW2. Poland lost vast swathes of what's now western Belarus and western Ukraine, but gained key towns from the Germans such as the provincial capital cities of Wrocław, Olsztyn, Szczecin, Opole and Zielona Góra and Gorzów Wielkopolski. Yet in the seven decades since the war ended, some of these cities remain backwaters because of a lack of decent transport links.

Only recently, thanks to rail modernisation and the completion of the S8 expressway has it become feasible to get to Wrocław and back in a day from Warsaw. And by reason of its relative proximity to Warsaw rather than because of any super roads or railways, Olsztyn is reasonably well connected.

But Szczecin really is the back of beyond. I was here twice in the mid-1990s delivering training to local entrepreneurs courtesy of an American education fund, both times travelling there from London rather than from Warsaw. So other than a brief night-train stop en route to Międzyzdroje, I've not been to Szczecin in all the 19 years I've lived in Poland. During that time, I've visited every other provincial capital (with half an exception, to which I'll return) - but not Szczecin.

Tomorrow I fly to Edinburgh. Now, trying to connect Szczecin to Edinburgh, I discovered that while there's a host of different buses between Szczecin and Berlin's airports - there's not a single direct bus connection between Szczecin and Gdańsk. There is a train - but it takes five hours. So I'm flying from Berlin. Szczecin was, before the war, Berlin's port, the transport connections remain. And road signs for Berlin outnumber road signs for Warsaw in this part of Poland.

There are three direct InterCity train from Warsaw to Szczecin a day, taking five hours, plus another five direct TLK trains (older carriages, fewer comforts) which take around six hours. The trains from Warsaw go via Poznań. Five-hour journey times mean that going there and back in a business day is impossible. But there is the night train, which takes over seven hours, giving you time get a good night's sleep before getting ofp at Szczecin a little before six am.

I took the night train, though to a different destination in north-west Poland - Koszalin - the first leg of my mini-roadshow around this part of the country. The train arrived in Koszalin at 09:40, allowing for a long sleep on the way up. This service, which continues onto Kołobrzeg on the coast, starts in Kraków, and calls in at Kielce, Radom, Dęblin, Warsaw, Gdańsk, Gdynia and Słupsk along the way - and many other places (27 stops in all on the 13 hour-long journey between Kraków and Koszalin). This train, the Mars, is surely one of Poland's great railway trips.

On my last night train trip, to Wrocław, I noted that the sleeper service had become more spartan - no morning coffee, no bottled water, no flannel-and-soap, no muffin or croissant. But to my delight, these were all available on my train. Once again - to all those of you who like to travel by train at night, with a hotel room and travel in one ticket - I urge you to use it, or lose it. Europe's night train services are going out one by one. [See the 'European sleepers' section of the blog of The Man In Seat 61 here]

So anyway, I arrive at Koszalin, pop by for a petit-dejeuner á la Ecosse, then set off on foot through the town to a hotel just outside its limits for the conference. In my ranking of Polish towns, it seems well kempt, without those signs of desperation - the loan-sharks and pawn shops, the employment agencies offering work abroad, and the kantory for when you return home with a fistful of euros or pounds. But sadly there's not much time to nose around Koszalin today.

After the conference there, I took a lift from the organisers onto the next location, Gorzów Wielkopolski. Now this, dear readers, is Poland's only provincial capital that I've never, ever, visited before. Gorzów Wielkopolski shares the capital status with Zielona Góra (which I have visited). Like Kujawsko-Pomorskie province, it has two capitals (Toruń and Bydgoszcz in that case) because of local jealousies and ambitions that could not be reconciled during the administrative reform of 1999.

To get to Gorzów from Koszalin, we took a roundabout route via the Szczecin's eastern bypass. This is 34km longer than the direct route, but it saves 24 minutes, because of the S3 dual carriageway linking Szczecin and Gorzów. It's 212km between Koszalin and Gorzów going the direct (slower) route - which gives you an idea of the distances involved in this part of Poland, given that Warsaw and Lublin are only 169km apart.

Much of the journey was across mildly undulating terrain with huge fields - unlike central Poland, state-owned collective farms were the normal mode of agriculture here in communist times.

Finally, we arrive in Gorzów Wielkopolski.

I contend, and have done so for many years, that Lubuskie province is an entirely artificial construct, and like Opolskie province should be divided up between its neighbours to the south, east and north.

I mean, how can a capital of a province be named after another province? It would be like having Kielce Małopolskie as the capital of Świętokrzyskie, or Olsztyn Pomorski as the capital of Warmińsko-Mazurskie. An absurdity.

The town itself is Not Nice. Plaster falling off damp graffitied walls, huge holes in the roads - this is clearly not one of Poland's better-run cities. The architecture tells of massive destruction during the final phases of the war, with much nondescript housing between tenements that somehow survived; then the 1990s came and with them the worst that that decade's architects could visit upon a town arrived. Those buildings where prisms are juxtaposed with arches, mirrored facades and cheap materials.

Below: one of Gorzów's main thoroughfares, ul. Walczaka. The fact that trams carry advertising for hearing aids says a lot about the city's demographics.

It was good to leave Gorzów Wielkopolski. Soon we're backtracking our way up the S3 to Szczecin in thick fog as it began to get dark. At times like this, one is very thankful for dual carriageways that prevent idiots overtaking across from the oncoming lane.

Anyway - first impressions of Szczecin after 20 something years - very positive. A busy, bright city, full of young people (suspiciously absent in Gorzów), new trams, cycle paths. And broad boulevards with traffic lights timed so pedestrians have a chance to walk across in one go on a green light without having to break into a trot.

Sadly, no time for a proper exploration of Szczecin - only photo I got in daylight was from the 11th floor of the Radisson Blu hotel (above), looking across at the city's new National Musuem, designed by Robert Konieczny, winner of the World Building 2016 Award. Beyond it lies the Palace of the Pomeranian Princes. Szczecin certainly merits a return visit some summer's day.

Over the border at 120km/h, heading towards Berlin. A two-and-half hour journey by bus - a small 22-seater minibus based on a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter which could keep up with Germany's autobahn speeds. Below: the landscape of north-east Germany is made awe-inspiring by large numbers of wind farms, generating electricity without having to burn fossil fuels.

But first - tomorrow's conference, bus to Berlin's Schoenefeld airport, then plane to Edinburgh via Stansted. Tomorrow night I'll be in a hotel in Edinburgh. Busy week.

This time last year:
Cars must fade from our cities

This time three years ago:
Unnecessary street lighting wastes money

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's heros on the walls

This time five years ago:
Tax dodge or public service?

This time seven years ago:
Warsaw's woodlands in autumn

This time eight years ago:
Still here, the early snow

This time nine years ago:
Another point of view


toyah said...

"AT Koszalin"??? Come on, man. The people there are bound to be upset.

Michael Dembinski said...

I read Toyah's comment. I posted late, near midnight, been a long day, typos happen. Happy to correct if an error's been made.

OK - grammar check time. Why "I arrived at Koszalin"?

You can 'arrive at' or 'arrive in'.

In this case, I'm describing a journey, my arrival is at the station, the word 'station' has been elided here for the sake of brevity. "I arrived at Kraków Główny"/"I arrived at Kraków" - we're talking about a building rather than a city. Because the next part of the paragraph describes my motion within the city, to the McDonalds for breakfast, I feel that 'arrived at Koszalin' is a justifiable usage in this case.

True, if a town has several stations the elision would not work. 'I arrived at London' would beg the question " London Paddington or at London Euston?" But Koszalin has but the one station. So it stand.

Any native English-speaking teachers of English like to comment here?

toyah said...

Thanks for the clarification.
"Tak dla wspólnej korzyści
I dla dobra wspólnego
Wszyscy muszą pracować
Mój maleńki kolego".

dr Marcin said...

Any native English-speaking teachers of English like to comment here?


You've made my day! Mike. You've truly made!

All the best,