Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Poland: travels in Silesia (Part 3)

I've been a bit slow with these reflections of our trip to Poland. Life is full right now, which is good, but it leaves little time for my blog. That said, I wanted to finish writing about my impressions before the colours of our vivid trip fade from my memory. I especially wanted to write about something that came up several times during our visit, which was the charm of people's response to us and the gracious and open welcome we received from the people we encountered.

And so the story continues.


On the morning of our second day, I went down to the reception area of the hotel to fetch coffee, but to my dismay, the machine had broken down. Now for me, the most important kick start of my morning routine is my cup of coffee, so I was very crinkly mouthed to find the machine out of order. Grumbling sourly, I asked the night receptionist, a middle-something, slightly balding Polish gentleman what we were supposed to do to find some refreshments. He was, bless him, deeply contrite and apologised profusely. Then to my surprise, he offered by means of sign language and a smattering of English to make us two cups of coffee from his own supply. This was apparently ground coffee, but not filtered. I was a bit doubtful about this, but he assured me that he drank it this way all the time so I gratefully agreed. Hurrying to the back room, he put his kettle on, after which we passed the time until it boiled by trading Polish and English words. He managed to tell me that although his language was pretty difficult for western Europeans, the Czech language was much worse. After giving me some examples, I believed him. Just as a for instance, the name Joseph in English is simply Josef in Polish but something like Pipka in Czech. I can't remember all the others, but we had great fun with lots of laughter in comparing linguistic notes. The coffee was predictably a bit sludgy, but the opportunity to communicate with this very dear and kindly receptionist made it well worth it.

We spent Saturday criss-crossing suburbs on buses and trams, visiting an open air mine museum and making various stops at places Koos had visited before and wanted to show me. What was amazing to me was that as soon as we boarded the trams, seats would be vacated for us by young people without demur or comment. It seems this is just the done thing in Silesia as it happened a number of times. Respect for the elderly (and yes, I suppose we seem that way to them) is built in.

Open air mine museum: Zabrse
The weather was gorgeous and very fit for taking photos, but the place that caught my visual eye the most was in the suburbs of Zabrze, next to the mine. We reached it by a tram ride that ended in what they call a pętla (pronounced 'pentla', but through your nose). This is a wide circle that allows the trams to turn round and go back the other way. There are dozens of them, but this one was special because it was like a fairy glen. The tram dipped into the trees that arched over the track. Wild flowers and undergrowth grew unchecked and it was so pretty I had to take a picture - so there!

The fairy glen that is a pętla (tram terminus)

Anyway, to go back to the story, we spent a good hour taking photos there. Koos was as always drawn to the railway with its abandoned station platforms, while I took countless views of the minehead. Then we walked around the small housing area tucked between the mine, the railway and the main road that swept past above it. Despite its potentially noisy environs, it was peaceful and quiet. The houses were in themselves uninspiring communist-style blocks, but each had its own garden filled with flowering trees and shrubs, and some were painted in vivid mediterranean colours that brightened them no end. One other noticeable improvement was that all the window frames on these houses were new and of synthetic materials. I must say this is everywhere in Polish towns and villages. Whoever has the franchise on these types of frames must have made a fortune since Poland joined the EU, as I believe funding for the renovations was heavily subsidized.

At one house, a man watched us curiously as we took our photos. Then he came to his gate and started to speak to us - presumably to ask what we were doing. But as soon as he opened his mouth, his dog started barking. He stopped, spoke to the dog and started again. And again, the dog barked. This happened every time he opened his mouth, so eventually, we laughed, shook heads and hands and gave up any attempt at communication. I was just glad it wasn't my dog!

Working mine : Zabrze

Back at the tram stop, we waited for the next one to take us back towards Zabrze again. Right on time, it arrived and the tram driver got out to have a cigarette. He must have heard us chatting to each other as he came over and asked us where we were from. When we told him, he bowed slightly and said 'Welcome' with a broad smile. He then asked us in halting English what we were doing there, and when we told him we liked taking photos he gave us a few suggestions of other places we might like. Eventually, he nodded to the tram and said "And now I must do my job," which we took as a gentle way to tell us it was time to leave. We boarded the tram delighted with our experiences and with the open friendliness of the driver too. I was trying to imagine whether this would have happened at home in Holland in one of the big cities. And couldn't. But then I'm not a visitor here, so maybe that makes a difference.

'Our tram' in Zabrze

The following day, in Krakow, we had another unexpected and pleasant encounter. Polish public transport depends on automation as much as it does everywhere else in Europe: you buy your train, bus and tram tickets from machines and only the larger train stations still have ticket offices. Our marvellous five day rambler tickets were only valid in the Katowice area, so we wanted to buy one day tickets for the time we were in Krakow. The instructions on the machines, however, were not very clear - even with English text (essential since Krakow probably survives on tourism), and we kept on getting it wrong. After two failed attempts, a man waiting in the queue to buy his, kindly offered to help us. No impatience, no irritation at keeping him waiting, he just gently showed us what to do. It then transpired we didn't have the right kind of bank card, so we'd have to pay cash. At that point, we let him go ahead of us….and another two equally patient souls. We felt we'd been the bumbling tourists quite long enough! But what charmed me was the kindness of these folk in a city overrun by visitors. I could have understood if they'd been thoroughly fed up with us, but no; they were patient, charming and gentle.

Kakow : Beautiful, elegant, proud
Krakow itself is everything people say it is: beautiful, elegant and proud. Sadly, it didn't really speak to me the way Katowice and Gliwice do, but we did have the most wonderful hour-long boat trip on the river Vistula, called Wisla in Polish. Our skipper was a charmer and very obliging about having his photo taken. He also electrified me by calling the city's magnificent convent 'a monastery for wee men'. It was only later that I realized he meant 'women' - or rather a convent for normal-sized nuns.

Our patient, friendly skipper

Our final day in Poland was another tour round Katowice's suburbs. We wandered through Chorzow (pronounced Khorzof ), Katowice centre and Bytom, which we went to last, and at night. The day's itinerary was determined by the fact we had to spend the night on Katowice station to be sure of catching a bus to the airport in the early hours of the Wednesday morning. Our flight back to Holland was an early one, and although there was a bus to the airport at five o'clock, there was no transport from Gliwice at that hour. So, we decided to take the one thirty bus from Katowice and catch some sleep at the airport. The only advantage of this was that it gave Koos the opportunity to take some of his favourite night photos, many of which he took in Bytom. I tried a few too, but without such spectacular results. 

All the same, I loved the town, which even late at night was busy and felt very safe. Like everywhere in Poland, there is a mix of shabby and chic, but it is good to see the years of neglect are finally being addressed. The one sad incident was seeing a young man in total collapse on a park bench near the town hall. It looked as if he might be terribly drunk and I was worried that he could even be dead. I was wondering whether to call for help when two women saw him as well and immediately phoned for an ambulance. As we boarded the tram, I was relieved to see a small crowd forming around him, their intentions clearly to offer support - another example that Polish people are socially aware, caring and kind.

City street in Katowice
We said goodbye to Poland at Katowice station - formerly a dark and malodorous place, but since two years ago, an immaculate, light and busy European crossroads. It felt totally safe to be sitting there reading at midnight. There were other travellers, cleaners and security people and the concourse felt lively despite it being so late. There were even a few refreshment kiosks still serving drinks. As a last impression of this country in a state of flux, it was a very good one. I must say I can't wait to go back and experience more of it.

The new facade of Katowice station