Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Poland, Day 1: Poznan

When my visa was up in Germany, I took a little detour through Poland on the way home to the States. I figured I should take advantage of my time-limited proximity to this country to experience something new and different. My two-day trip was neither as wet nor as cold as I had expected. I brought the rain with me from Berlin, as if the train were towing the rain clouds behind it. Two and a half hours later, I got out at Poznan, "the historical capital of the Wielkopolska Region, where the Polish State was born 1000 years ago," according to the city's website. "Posen" was also once the capital of a Prussian province, after Poland was divided between Germany and Russia in 1815. Unfortunately, a wet Sunday afternoon was probably not the best time to try to get a feel for Poland's fifth largest city (pop. 550,000). 

I had not planned an extensive itinerary for this trip, hoping rather to have good weather to wander about and take photographs. On account of the rain, however, I decided a museum visit would be a better/drier way to learn about the city, so I paid 5 zloty (no Euros!) to see the Museum of the History of Poznan. Alas, it turned out to be a stereotypical small-town museum of objects arranged more or less chronologically by theme (guilds, portraits, books and artisanal products, "19th century"). Maybe 1/2-3/4 of the little printed labels had been translated into English. Although the paragraphs about each room explained the groupings of the pieces, there was no real narrative. So I finished early at the museum. Little more educated than when I went in, and with several hours of somewhat drier daylight and visiting hours at other attractions ahead of me (until 6pm, according to what I could find online), I decided to go ahead and walk around. I usually have a pretty good sense of direction, but between the rain and a hodgepodge of streets, my mental compass utterly failed me, and I got lost twice in three hours. On the upside, I saw a little bit more of the city, which is on a river and which has an impressive amount of green space.

From the train station to the emperor's castle to various dilapidated buildings, much of Poznan is under construction. Because the city is known for its architecture, this state of being half-finished is probably a common one in its 1000+-year history. For instance, the Rathaus (left) was first constructed in the 1500s in a northern Italian Renaissance style; the main hall with its creative ceiling is original, but other parts were renovated just before WWI or after WWII. The emperor's castle has a medieval exterior and a New Objectivity interior dating to the 1930s. Across a wide meridian stands the building for the Prussian Academy of Arts and Sciences with a stepped facade (think Amsterdam). On the meridian stands a monument to the "Poznan Uprising" of 1956 (first image above); what is remarkable is that the monument was privately funded and opened already in 1981, at a time when Poles were pushing back against the one-party system, but well before the official end of socialism. It combines two important national symbols, the cross and the eagle. Eagles also appeared in a memorial to those who died defending Poznan during WWII (bottom image). 

Despite the fact that I had developed blisters already (my German sneakers rubbed right on my pinky toes), I figured I had enough time to walk 2km across the city center and over the river to the Cathedral Island. That was actually worth the visit. The main attraction, the cathedral (right), was first built in 698 and since revised, destroyed, and updated. In its current incarnation, some new artwork tempers the very old art and architecture. Outside stands a life-sized statue of the late Pope John Paul II. Then it was home to the hostel, where I took a hot shower, ate the leftovers I had brought for dinner, and enjoyed the free wireless internet.

Poznan was nice. It felt like a small city. I only wish that I could have had some company while I was tramping around it (the student who invited me out to visit her family there was actually on vacation at the same time I was). Next day: Warsaw.

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